Our waitress smiled when I ordered cua rang me (tamarind crab) at Kim Son Vietnamese Bistro. This was one of her favorite dishes, she told us. In fact, she'd just recommended it to her sister.
If nothing else, I knew the crab would be fresh. A cook snagged it from one of the glass tanks along the dining room's rear wall, in which crabs, lobsters and fish swam, scuttled around or otherwise hung out. My crab went quietly, but on a subsequent visit two waiters needed a net, a stepladder and some animated discussion to fetch a customer's lobster.
The tanks are impressive. In a smaller restaurant, they might be the décor's focal point. But Kim Son is large, seating about 120, and in terms of distractions, I'd put the tanks above the brightly colored walls but below the several flat-screen TV sets broadcasting everything from American soaps, sports and prime-time programs to Vietnamese variety shows to, on two visits, the exact-same loop of music videos, a few of which predate MTV.
When the crab arrived at our table, it still appeared to be whole. Even if I weren't from Baltimore, where the official rite of summer is bushels of steamed blue crabs encrusted with Old Bay, I'd be excited. Few dining experiences are as primal or as satisfying as taking apart a crab. You really have to work for your food not just cracking the claws, but breaking the body into pieces, rooting around the jagged shells for every last shred of meat and pausing occasionally to treat the inevitable shell-inflicted wounds. (On the pain scale, these wounds tend to rank somewhere between paper cuts and razor slashes, though if you get Old Bay or hot sauce in them, a razor slash won't seem so bad.)
This crab was a fat Dungeness, sitting in an orange-red sauce studded with whole chiles, bright red and dangerously small. When I turned the crab over to reach its apron essentially the shell's handy pull-tab I saw the kitchen had done the work for me.
The shell was empty. Beneath it were the legs, neatly segmented. I was disappointed, but only briefly. Attached to each leg was a hunk of body meat, and the legs themselves had yet to be cracked. In other words, I'd still have to get my hands dirty.
The meaty end of each leg had been lightly battered and fried, providing a textural balance to the tender crab meat, but little flavor. That was no problem the tamarind sauce was intensely flavorful; its balance of sweet and sour drew out the natural sweetness of the crab meat and contrasted it directly, while the whole chiles supplied a discernible (but not scorching) heat.
Tamarind crab was my favorite among the dishes I tried at Kim Son. I can't say it's the best item at Kim Son, because the restaurant offers 170 choices, not counting drinks, two desserts and special lunch combinations. I tried many dishes over four visits but barely made a dent in the lengthy menu.
Kim Son opened on Olive Boulevard in University City in January. The clean, modern interior looks new, but the building is not. Before Kim Son, the space housed another Vietnamese restaurant, Vietnam Star. Kim Son owner Sonny To wasn't connected to that restaurant, though he told me he did own a restaurant called Golden Dragon in Illinois "a long time ago."
Really, aside from its décor and erratic new-restaurant service prompt and courteous on two visits, very slow and forgetful on two others Kim Son will seem familiar to anyone who has eaten at Lemongrass, Mai Lee or any other of the Vietnamese restaurants in the area.
Like those restaurants, Kim Son divides its menu into categories by preparation (soups, vermicelli dishes, rice platters) and main ingredient (beef, chicken, pork). Tamarind crab is one of the "House Specials," which are mostly lobster, crab, oyster and whole steamed or fried fish entrées. A roster of "Classic but Unique Dishes" includes several frog-leg, clam and raw-beef dishes. From this category I tried chim cut chien don (crisp quail). The two fried quail were served in a barbecue sauce like a thinner, sweeter hoisin; the skin was crisp, as promised, and the meat was tender surprisingly so, given the birds' small size. On the side was a small bowl of soy sauce spiked with chiles for dipping. Just as the interplay between sweet and sour made the tamarind crab so distinctive, here the contrast between salty and sweet was striking.
Dipping sauces, condiments and fresh herbs are a vital part of Vietnamese cuisine. The most obvious example is pho, the classic soup of rice noodles in beef broth, served with bean sprouts, fresh herbs, slices of jalapeños and a lime wedge on the side. Kim Son serves pho, along with three other soup categories. From the mi (egg-noodle soup) list a friend ordered mi hoanh thanh, pork and won tons in a sumptuous pork broth. She added a little cilantro to give the broth an edge; she also added bean sprouts, which I don't like, but they did provide a contrast to the soft texture of the noodles and won tons.
Vit chien don (crisp duck) was a generous serving of duck deep-fried to a golden, though not greasy, crisp, served on the bone in pieces slightly larger than bite-size. The meat was very moist and flavorful, but there was a lot of it, and the flavor would have grown dull if not for the dipping sauce served alongside. This was nuoc cham what you might call the mother sauce of Vietnamese cuisine. Essentially, it's diluted, sweetened Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam), usually seasoned with garlic, lime juice and chiles. I found Kim Son's nuoc cham to be on the sweet side, but a dab of sriracha sauce balanced its sweetness and brightened the flavor of the duck.
An order of suon rim man, pork spare ribs cut into small pieces, simmered in a traditional brown sauce and served in a clay pot, required more than a dab of sriracha. The sauce wasn't bad, just blandly savory. The best ribs were the fattier; though none was particularly fatty, those that lacked any fat tended to be tough. Similarly, bun bo nuong strips of beef in a lemongrass marinade with shredded vegetables and chopped peanuts served over a big bowl of vermicelli benefited from a sriracha accent (and perhaps a dose of nuoc cham).
With a menu this extensive, it would have been shocking not to encounter a single misfire. I don't think any condiment could have helped another dish: scallops, shrimp and squid over pan-seared rice noodles (hu tieu ap chao do bien). The seafood was tremendous, in quantity and in size, but the dish as a whole was greasy, with an unpleasantly dank flavor.
But there were also unexpected treats, like the tamarind crab, and an order of goi cuon thit nuong two simple spring rolls elevated by strips of delicious, smoky, char-grilled pork. No doubt more tasty surprises lurk among Kim Son's 170 offerings. After all, I still have about 150 left to try.
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