Flavorful forks in the road
Though the plating and presentation of the food at Café Trang is classy, the place has a no-nonsense pragmatism that’s just as pronounced. The walls of the clean, open dining room are nearly barren, sending the message that all artistry is reserved for the food. And the drink options are at the top of the menu, rather than the bottom where they’re usually found—a refreshing bit of sensibility given that your drink order is the first thing the server asks of you.
And those drinks are good. The soy milk is made fresh daily from whole soybeans and palm sugar, and it has the faint, comforting flavor of pandan leaf. Pandan (aka screwpine) is a type of palm tree whose leaves impart a mild, almost sweet flavor. The fresh-squeezed orange juice is for real. And with Talin across the parking lot, you can be sure they won’t run out of fresh coconuts.
The rest of the menu is long and full of surprises. My order of spicy lemongrass tofu and jasmine rice had plenty of room to stretch out on its oversized square plate. The tofu chunks were large, with all the chile, ginger, lemongrass and fish sauce concentrated on the crispy exterior. Strong flavors notwithstanding, it was a simple dish with no veggies. If that were your entire meal, you might feel as if you missed the party. But as part of a family-style spread, the tofu is a very worthy member. I was sad and practically nostalgic when that plate was finished.
The pho comes in three sizes, ranging from large to absurdly large, but it isn’t the strong suit on the menu. Don’t get me wrong—it’s solid pho, with an excellent and mildly aromatic broth that’s full of rich bone grease. But it just didn’t seem like the cooks were trying as hard as they could. The side salad was smallish, and the slices of raw beef were so thoroughly dispersed in the hot broth that they were completely cooked by the time it reached my table. Given that Café Trang is one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in town that doesn’t have the word “pho” in its name, I guess we can give it a pass. Instead, I much preferred the bun bo hue—spicy lemongrass soup with ham hock, sliced beef and pork garlic sausage.
The vegetable lemongrass soup was generously endowed with vegetables, and it came in a broth that seemed too rich to be vegetarian. The waiter confirmed it was beef broth. So be warned, non-omnivores: Many of the veggie dishes at Trang have fish sauce or beef broth. If you want to avoid any and all animal parts, it’s worth a conversation with your server to make sure. Because as I learned, “vegetable” doesn’t mean “vegetarian”—even if it’s on the vegetarian section of the menu.
I usually don’t think to order bahn mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), but the ones at Café Trang could change that. I tried the Korean barbecue beef sandwich for the novelty of eating a Korean-style bahn mi—a type of dish that is itself a hybrid of Vietnamese and French food. The culinary chimera worked. The narrow, crusty baguette was packed with shredded pickled carrots and daikon, sliced cucumbers, jalapeños, cilantro sprigs, and marinated barbecue beef with fatty edges that interacted dreamily with the other components. Each mouthful delivered a different proportion of the ingredients, changing the flavor dynamic and keeping me wondering what the next bite would taste like.
There’s an interesting selection of side dishes to diversify your meal for between $1 and $3. I tried the snow crab claw, which was cut in such a way that the big piece of meat was effortlessly accessible, with more crab flesh available to those who go digging. Based on my sandwich experience, I just couldn’t resist a side of Korean-style New York steak. It was juicy and tasty, and covered with minced scallions.
In most cases, Café Trang put a creative spin on dishes I was familiar with, and it didn’t let me down with the ones I’ve never heard of. I recommend a trip off the menu's beaten path.