The first time I set foot in Mao Seng and VilaySysavath's Viet Thai Restaurant in Irondequoit a couple of weeks ago, I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. It wasn't because the place is similar to the couple's popular pho and noodle restaurant SEA on Monroe Avenue -- it's not. There was something about the restaurant, something I couldn't quite put my finger on, that reminded me forcefully of the first Vietnamese restaurant I visited more than 20 years ago in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Set in a former Chinese restaurant, Viet Thai is, in many ways, a throwback to a time when Vietnamese and Thai food were still unfamiliar cuisines outside of bigger cities and college towns. It evokes a time when Vietnamese food, with its emphasis on fresh ingredients, light sauces, and pho, was Chinese food lite, and Thai food was almost entirely dominated by peanut sauce and red curry with coconut milk. It is, in short, the best restaurant to go to if you want to introduce someone with a relatively timid palate to the wonder and glory of two of the tastiest and most complex cuisines out there.
But if you are the kind of person who keeps a bottle of fish sauce in your cabinet or has ever asked for your entrée to be delivered to you "Thai hot," Viet Thai may not be your best place to grab lunch. For the rest of us, though, a trip to Viet Thai can be a real, if somewhat tame, pleasure. That's not to say that the menu lacks heat and spice, just that you'll have to look for it a bit and occasionally grab the bottle of Sriracha chili sauce on the table to zip things up a bit.
There is no better way to start a Vietnamese meal than with a plate of spring rolls, shredded lettuce and rice vermicelli wrapped in a translucent rice-flour "skin" along with roasted pork, shrimp, and often shredded herbs like cilantro or Thai basil. At Viet Thai, the cooks skip the herbs and the roast pork (and thus a tiny bit of the funky flavor that you'll find in many rolls), making for a spring roll that tastes light, clean, and fresh with just the barest hint of shrimpy flavor, a pleasant carrier for the accompanying hoisin peanut sauce. ($3.50)
If you want a bit of fire to start your meal, you'll also choose a plate of the chef's special chicken wings, a deep-fried wonder that could well displace Buffalo wings in your heart for good. ($4.95) Four fat and meaty chicken wings come in a single order, battered and fried to a deep and appealing brown and then tossed with a sauce that is somewhere between sweet and sour and red curry paste. The wings are served smoking hot from the fryer with the sauce adding just the right jolt of spice to complement the meat and crunchy coating. You will, without a doubt, find yourself licking the sauce off of your fingers rather than resorting to a more civilized napkin.
That is, however, the last time you may find yourself in need of something to put out the fire on your tongue. Typically, Thai food is synonymous with heat, the sort of heat that makes sweat break out on your forehead and leaves your mouth more or less numb. There are even dishes, chief among them pad keemau (roughly translated as "drunken noodles," so named because of the amount of beer you'll consume trying to tamp down the burn), that are gratuitous exercises in the masochistic pleasure of heat for heat's sake.
At Viet Thai, unless you ask for it, you simply won't get anything like this. On my first visit, I ordered the pad keemau ($8.25 with pork or chicken), looking forward to that dish's usual burst of heat. What was delivered to me looked remarkably like a red curry with coconut milk (kaengphet) served over the usual wide, flat noodles. The vegetables in the dish were beautifully fresh, and the knife work was gorgeously done (I was particularly fond of the scoring on the outside of the zucchini slices), but the smoky flavor and intense heat typically associated with the dish just wasn't there. I didn't need to reach for my glass of iced coffee with condensed milk even once, let alone ask for another. Similarly, that hottest of Thai-style curries, Evil Jungle Prince, was more of a Gentle Garden Prince, full of fresh veg and nicely flavorful, but not at all spicy. ($8.25)
Vietnamese dishes, which tend to be on the lighter and milder side anyway, are a much better bet at Viet Thai. The noodles in my companion's bowl of "traditional" bun (rice vermicelli with shredded lettuce, cucumbers, and bean sprouts, $8.50) were lovely, cooked just-so -- slippery and toothsome, rather than overcooked and gummy as too often happens. The vegetables were fresh tasting and pleasant. We ordered ours with grilled beef and fried eggrolls. The beef had a subtle whisper of lemongrass and a nice char, the eggrolls crunchy and full of a mix of pork, spices, and shredded carrot that brought a welcome burst of flavor to the dish. The "house dressing," while not in any way bad, was also not what I was expecting.
Nuoccham, the usual accompaniment to bun, relies on the subtle alchemy of rice vinegar and lime juice intermixed with foul-smelling fish sauce to create one of the best dressings I've ever encountered. Here, though, there didn't seem to be any fish sauce at all, which made for a tangy, slightly sweet dressing that lubricated the salad but didn't really add much or tie the elements together the way that nuoccham normally does. It was fine, but I got the feeling that I might have been better off going with the unorthodox but probably quite tasty peanut sauce that you can get to go with your noodles instead.