You may never want a hamburger again.
My friend Lou Jane turned me on to Vinh Hoa, calling to tell me that she'd finally discovered a Vietnamese joint in Kansas City that served the kind of stuffed baguettes she'd found in other cities. If the concept of an Asian baguette seems odd, remember that the French occupied Vietnam from 1859 until World War II, and the former Saigon (today's Ho Chi Minh City) was once compared to Paris for its sophisticated cuisine.
I wouldn't call the food at Vinh Hoa sophisticated, but it's excellent and inexpensive. The closest it gets to le cuisine de la France are those crusty baguettes; the rest of the menu which boasts nearly 50 appetizers and entreés is heavy on Vietnamese favorites such as bowls of pho with soft rice vermicelli noodles or comforting broth dishes. (It also claims to offer Chinese dishes, but that's limited to seven versions of chow mein.)
Let's just say that Du takes a multiethnic approach to dining, which is a good thing, because he has taken over the Spanish-inspired building on Burlington Street formerly occupied by the venerable Acapulco Mexican Restaurant. Du told me recently that a few older diners still straggle in hoping to order a taco combination plate, but he draws the line at food from south of the border.
Du was born in Vietnam but moved to the United States as a teenager. "I'm half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese," he said between puffs of a cigarette. There is a small town called Vinh Hoa in Vietnam's Quang Tri province, but that's not the reason Du chose the name for his restaurant. "The word Hoa is the name for the Chinese minority in Vietnam. It's just a popular name in Vietnam."
I'm not sure he knows why he chose the name, which isn't easy to pronounce. A friend of mine, who loves the restaurant, just refers to it as "David Du's place."
In any event, the interior hasn't changed since the joint was called Acapulco. The tables are covered in vinyl, and the fluorescent lighting is so cruel, it could make Dakota Fanning look like Courtney Love. To the right of the front door, there's still a tiny bar with an odd assortment of booze left behind by the previous owner. "We have this liquor here," Du said, pointing to a shelf of bottles, "but I don't sell many mixed drinks. My customers order Vietnamese coffee and bubble teas."
And fresh-squeezed limeade served in plastic cups, which is what I drank on my first visit. I had come with Lou Jane, who sipped iced Vietnamese coffee made with sweetened condensed milk, and Bob, who ordered iced Vietnamese tea.
While we waited for our dinners, we went to work on a couple of fabulous starters: plump spring rolls stuffed with roasted pork, pink shrimp and cilantro; and a pile of banh khoai tom chein, crunchy, tempura-battered sticks of sweet potato and shrimp, which we wrapped in sheets of cool lettuce and dipped in topaz-colored nuoc cham.