Bright Lights, Big Flavors
Ben Thanh delivers fun and pho for little dough
The Nguyen family opened Ben Thanh Vietnamese Restaurant on Central Avenue in 2005 after selling their long-loved Lang Van restaurant. It's a clean, brightly lit space with few frills. Mother Ngan still rules the kitchen, with her grown children rounding out most of the staff. You'll always find a smiling face next to the cool kid magnet of an aquarium at the entrance and plenty of help with the menu should you have questions. But don't question two things: one, bring friends and share everything you can possibly taste; two, it's fine to get a little messy. In fact, expect it.
Start with a pot of hot tea or a $16 bottle of house wine while you question whether that is an instrumental version of "Ain't No Sunshine" playing in the background. (It is.) Try the ever-popular summer rolls or the crab asparagus soup. If you're ready to dive in with friends, share some Nuong Vi and create your own masterpiece rice-paper roll of chicken, beef, shrimp, or pork (this is where the messiness comes in).
Of the 100-plus items on the menu, most entrées fall within the $8 to $12 range. There are at least twenty vegetarian and vegan options. Everything is broken down by number and by category -- pho (noodle soup), rice dishes, curry. Most come with a side plate of fresh, aromatic herbs like Thai basil, mint, and cilantro. Hearty and satisfying, the pho seems all curing on a cold winter's day. If you can, get the yellow pancakes (No. 17), the stir-fried noodles (No. 74), or the Asian green beans (No. 61).
The one-bite peanut cookies that arrive with the check are the perfect finish with a ubiquitous bubble tea or sweet Viet-French coffee. And if the sesame coconut buns just came out of the oven, loosen your belt and give in. Don't worry. The staff is happy to wrap up leftovers and you'll be even happier to have them for lunch the next day.
Ben Thanh Vietnamese Restaurant
4900 Central Ave.
L, D, $