When Viet Royal opened in the Columbia Square Shopping Center several months ago, I winced. Not because I don’t enjoy Vietnamese cuisine but because Viet Royal’s location is directly across from Augusta’s other Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Bac, which I reviewed in March 2012.
Could our town sustain two Vietnamese restaurants – particularly two right across the street from each other?
I decided to find out, and we brought a crew along with us to weigh in – dedicated foodies who have even more decisive opinions than I do.
Inside its brick façade, the restaurant had the right look: In the main dining room, dark-red booths are separated by polished wood partitions with a stone tile floor. Our hostess sat us in Viet Royal’s side room – which, with the tile floor, echoed a bit.
A laminated sheet of hand-scrawled weekly specials proclaimed dishes such as Pig at the Seaside, a white, thick noodle soup with shrimp, sliced pork, pig’s feet, pork pastries and pork blood (!); and Sleeping Duck on the Golden Pond, a special egg noodle soup with roasted duck simmered with herbs and exotic mushrooms and served in an enriched broth.
The extensive menu – all written in phonetic Vietnamese with detailed English descriptions – featured options including appetizers, pho (the classic Vietnamese rice noodle soup) and other noodle soups, stir-fried noodles, rice vermicelli with meat and vegetables, broken rice platters (literally broken grains of rice, cooked and served with meats), vegetarian options, stir fries, fried rice, meat and fish prepared in a clay pot, desserts and a variety of coffees, sodas and other beverages. Note: No alcoholic beverages are available, but feel free to BYOB.
We started with a variety of appetizers. The pretty summer rolls were sweet with pink shrimp and had a good herbal tang from the mint and basil, served with peanut sauce adorned with a dollop of spicy chili sauce. (Take as much, or as little, as you dare.) The calamari were cooked perfectly, tender on the inside with a crisp coating, and served with a sweet sauce.
No matter how you prepare it, my husband, Sean, doesn’t typically like the texture of soft-shelled crab. But he had to admit – Viet’s rendition was pretty good. The coating was so crisp (or else the shell was so thin) that Sean couldn’t tell that the crab still had its shell on – and it had a delicate, musky crab flavor.
Our friends Brett and Grace also shared their roasted quail appetizer with us. The soy-lacquered bird had the sweetness and depth of a Chinese soy-glazed duck – and interestingly was served with a small dish of mixed salt and black pepper and a lime. We dipped and squeezed – and surprisingly, it wasn’t too salty.
I also appreciated that several of the appetizers came atop a salad of peppery watercress along with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. A little green vegetable was refreshing – and made me feel a little better about all the fried appetizers.
Entrée-wise, Sean ordered No. 10, the Mi Xao Don, crispy egg noodles with your choice of seafood, beef or chicken. It arrived, a bird’s nest of noodles cradling shrimp, squid, fried fish balls and a plethora of vegetables – beautifully decorated with a flower carved from a carrot with a cherry center.
To eat it, you must allow the crispy noodles to soften in the sauce from the seafood and vegetable stir fry. While Sean enjoyed the fresh vegetables and seafood, his one complaint was that there wasn’t quite enough sauce to make the noodles soft enough to enjoy.
I chose No. 46, the Vietnamese shrimp and crab fried rice. Like Sean’s, it was beautifully presented: Inside a crispy fried bowl made from eggroll wrappers, the pale rice was studded with shrimp and flecks of crab meat, with a sprinkling of parsley and green onion. The flavor was very light and delicate – I felt almost like I was eating air. I chipped off a bit of the bowl to taste it (it was just like a fried wonton) and ended up munching off nearly half of it.
With the exception of our friends Connie and Jake – pho experts who in the final tabulation felt that other restaurants would edge out Viet’s version of the classic dish – we reckoned that Viet provides a colorful and flavorful option for local Vietnamese cuisine. So much so that Sean and I were back a few weeks later for an after-church lunch: the broken rice platter with pork, quiche and a fried egg. It was terrific – particularly the quiche, which had the taste of a pate, and the glazed pork, which we fought over with our chopsticks.
Good Vietnamese – with two options to choose from? Yes, please.