Can one have a crush on a restaurant? I mean this seriously. When I think back to the many crushes I have had the pleasure of experiencing, the common thread that runs through them is the way my heart leaps when I think of the object of my affection. This is usually coupled with a smile, a rush of exhilarating emotion and a flush to the face when I speak of it. Crushes are not hormone-charged love affairs; they are innocent, sweet and warm.
In this sense, I think I have a crush on Mi Linh. Maybe it is the gentle, hands-clasped-in-prayer greeting from Dee Dee Tran (who co-owns Mi Linh with her brother, Nelson) and the fact that she remembered me after only my second visit. Perhaps it's the small altar adorned with incense and fresh offerings that peeks out from its hiding space to greet me upon entry. Maybe I was taken in by our server, Tran's niece, who beamed with pride as she lovingly described her family's recipes. Whatever the case, I am charmed.
Vietnamese food is having its moment in the sun, and St. Louis has been fortunate in having several fine options (Mai Lee and Pho Grand to name just two) for experiencing this sophisticated cuisine. Could Mi Linh, a refurbished former Chinese restaurant surrounded by strip malls in Rock Hill, really challenge those established competitors? Oh, and then some.
See also: Inside Mi Linh in Rock Hill
Thoughtfulness permeates all aspects of the restaurant. Red light fixtures, shaped like lotuses in various stages of bloom, highlight the dark burgundy walls to create an exotic loungelike atmosphere. At the front of the restaurant a small bar serves up an impressive and inventive list of cocktails to rival the creations of St. Louis' best mixologists. (I recommend trying the house-infused lychee vodka.) Even the way that the Trans display the various sauces on the tables exhibits attention to detail.
Fortunately for diners, this front-of-house care is a mere precursor to the extraordinary dishes coming out of the kitchen.
As my dining companion and I scanned the appetizer selections, we were intrigued by the butter-garlic chicken wings. Should we go for them? They certainly sounded delicious, but the thought of ordering chicken wings at a Vietnamese restaurant seemed a little amateurish. Was this Mi Linh's "white people" appetizer — the token safe item for the novices of ethnic cuisine who've been forced out to dinner by a more adventurous friend? Not so, urged our server: "These are my favorite things on the menu. I eat them almost every day."
Thank heaven we took her advice, as these were, without question, the best wings I have ever had in my life. For starters, the wings were not simply a grisly transportation device for breading and sauce, but a joy in and of themselves. The plump meat, juicy with a garlic marinade, burst off the bones. The breading — oh, the breading! It was crispy, not just a flaky crispy, but delicately crunchy. The housemade sweet chile sauce gave the wings a welcome bit of vinegar spice, but the star of the show was the bed of sautéed green and white onions upon which the chicken wings sat. The pan-fried onions soaked up all of the meat's garlicky, peppery drippings, making the dish positively transcendent.
It's difficult to understand how a delicate a dish — such as the mi vit tiem, or five-herbs duck soup — can have such an intensity of flavor. The clean, savory broth hinted at just a scent of lemongrass perfume to give it a subtle sweetness. The duck component was a simple roasted thigh whose skin somehow managed to maintain its crispiness even though it was resting atop a bowl of steaming soup (they really get texture at Mi Linh). Egg noodles added richness to the broth's delicacy.
For the rice lovers among us, the com tam with suon bo nuong, broken white rice with beef short ribs, was pleasant enough. I was especially impressed with the ribs' sweet, peppery char that stood out from the less remarkable aspects of the dish. The side of homemade fish sauce was also a special treat, especially for those accustomed to the stuff out of the bottle. The com chien with thap cam, or combination Vietnamese fried rice, oozed understated elegance, as it exemplified Mi Linh's thoughtful food philosophy. So often in fried-rice dishes the meat is an afterthought with chefs throwing in sinewy scraps of low-quality protein as a way to utilize what otherwise would be trash. This was not the case for this dish, as the barbecue pork, beef, chicken and shrimp were all tender and not the least bit grisly. It's a safe dish for the less adventurous, but it's not a throwaway.
One cannot properly evaluate a Vietnamese restaurant without sampling the pho, and Mi Linh's pho bo did not disappoint. Again, the broth of this quintessential soup had the consistency of a consommé: It filled the mouth with flavor, but it had no heaviness whatsoever. The gentle kiss of lemongrass was again present, but we picked up the subtle addition of some sort of vinegar (rice wine?) that brightened the soup without making it overly pungent. It's astounding that rice noodles can be so flavorful, but these had a slight nuttiness that was enhanced by their time in the aromatic broth. Garnishes of basil, sprouts, lime and cilantro allow diners to explore how different flavors interact, making this a creative endeavor. My only complaint is that the accompanying bo vien, or beef meatballs (guests can select their protein of choice for the soup), were a little tough and chewy and did not have much flavor independent of the broth. I'm not sure if this was the result of spending so much time in the broth or if it is a stylistic difference (typically, Asian meatballs are much firmer than their Western cousins), but I recommend selecting a different meat option. Next time, I will opt for the thinly sliced rare beef.
That caveat aside, Mi Linh is an absolute gem. Sure, crushes tend to fade, but I have a feeling that this one will blossom into a long love affair.
See also: Inside Mi Linh in Rock Hill