Neighborhood Vietnamese joint is in the groove
Come for the emissions testing, come back for the duck soup. That's the brilliant business model that almost was, but isn't. It turns out 2000 Vietnam Restaurant and Saigon Express Emissions Testing, in an attached garage on Zuni and San Mateo, are separate businesses. But I'm still coming back for the duck soup.
Until then I'll be haunted by the memory of that fragrant and mildly sweet broth steaming my face, and that falling-apart-soft hindquarter of duck. The soup includes a choice of rice or egg noodles and a pho-style side salad, allowing you to customize with jalapeño slices, basil, lime wedges and sprouts. The kitchen grants no such leeway in the onion department, adding three types of raw onion before serving: chopped spring onion tops, slices from a sweet onion and whole spring bulbs. This allium chorus makes the duck soup even duckier.
As the name implies, 2000 Vietnam just finished its first decade. It has the hum and swing of a well-established neighborhood restaurant. On one night, the diverse patronage includes a pierced and dreaded couple, an intellectual-looking man with a scarf, a family, and a table of Vietnamese-yapping twentysomethings. The air smells faintly of steam and five-spice, and it pulses softly with upbeat Asian twang. Crowding the dining room are a set of marble tables that look like they belong in a Paris sidewalk café. The decor is eclectic but not busy; paintings of a Vietnamese landscape, wild horses and a Central American Indian with her baby all have their space, as do odd trinkets and plants. The flat-screen TV is turned to sports.
Service is attentive but cool, and nobody protested the hours I spent there with my laptop, sipping a Vietnamese iced coffee prepared at my table. The strong, sweetened coffee is excellent, but I prefer the taro shake—a tall glass of thick lavender liquid with a handful of blue tapioca balls on the bottom. The shake has a pleasant nutty flavor that lives up to its visual spectacle.
Flat, wide rice noodles are a weakness of mine. They are my comfort noodle, durable yet pillowy soft, nice on the teeth, with ample sauce-binding surface area and unblemished inner noodle core. I've had the 2000 Vietnam flat noodles two ways: stir-fried with vegetables and with succulent pork (and lots of veggies). Both versions do simple, satisfying justice to my noodle.
On the well-worn path, the spring rolls are gorgeous; the rice paper is rolled so airtight that after your first bite, the roll sucks up the nuoc mam dipping sauce like a turkey baster. The pho, meanwhile, is greasy in a good way. Raw beef slices lose their pink before your eyes; every bite of creamy tendon brings great pleasure.
On a path less traveled, the No. 122, "special broken rice with shredded pork, pork chops, meat egg pie, half-done egg and fried tofu" is a study in protein diversification, including several slices of unadvertised shrimp paste wrapped in sugar cane. The meat egg pie is like meat loaf, but the lightest meat loaf ever. The pork chop is sweet, five-spiced and crispy. The inclusion of fried tofu chunks amid all of that animal flesh is endearing. But the most impressive protein of all is the half-fried egg—a hot, molten core in a crispy, oily veneer. Someday I'd like to apprentice with the fine chef at 2000 Vietnam and learn the art of egg half-cooking.
Not to mention duck-souping. That dark, soulful, sweaty broth takes me to a hidden alley in a faraway city where strange, sweet smells drift around corners and a food cart steams under a street lamp.
Or maybe that's the carbon monoxide getting to my brain. I think I need to go get my emissions tested.
• Duck soup
• Flat noodles
• Taro shake
• No. 122: special broken rice with shredded pork, pork chops, meat egg pie, half-done egg and fried tofu
601 San Mateo SE, 232-0900
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day
Price range: Appetizers start at $3; nearly all dishes are $6 or $7; the No. 122 tops the list at $9.25.
Vibe: Stimulating and relaxed
Vegetarian options: Many and strong