Monday, May 21, 2007

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover: T. Ho serves delicious Vietnamese in an unglamorous location

Originally published in Cityview Magazine in January, 2007.

The Merchants Drive area is hardly Mecca for gourmands, what with its proliferation of fast food and chain restaurants. One unlikely oasis in this barren culinary desert takes the shape of a small family-owned Vietnamese restaurant, located in a small, care worn strip mall just minutes from I-75. On our visit, it was a cold night and the shabby little strip mall was looking worse for wear. However, inside T. Ho it was warm and bright, and the fragrant Vietnamese food beckoned.

I was immediately transfixed by the (I assume) family photos that lined the wall in the main dining area. They are blown up and very evocative, and if I had any say I’d quickly replace the out-of-place French café paintings in the smaller dining area with more of the same. Quickly seated by our somewhat harried and distracted waiter, we placed an order for Tsing Tao beers ($3.25) and studied the menu.

The menu has been updated and now features some appetizers other than the signature spring rolls. The sampler ($7.50) included a large crab cake, wedges of fried eggplant, and some strips of fried calamari. The crab cake was crisp with buttery panko breadcrumbs and well seasoned, but I particularly enjoyed the fried eggplant, which managed to be crunchy yet not greasy or soggy inside. The calamari, while served a bit on the cold side, was tender and cooked properly. The real standout was the spicy chili dipping sauce that came alongside the trio. It was so good that we requested more of it to accompany our spring rolls.

The spring rolls that are served with all entrees are really spectacular. Delicately spiced with crisp, flaky layers, I could have easily eaten more than one. Given the choice between vegetarian or pork, I chose vegetarian—stuffed with peppery cabbage and delicious. As I mentioned before, we chose to dip these cigar-shaped delights in the spicy sauce that accompanied our appetizers, since we found the spring roll sauce to be devoid of any flavor. Heavy on the cornstarch, this “sauce” tasted just barely of red pepper flakes, but overall was just viscous goo.

After poring over the extensive menu I chose to go with one of T. Ho’s traditional Vietnamese dishes—Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Country Style Crepe—$8.75). I wasn’t sure what to expect and was pleased with the fluffy-yet-crispy rustic crepe that was set in front of me. The crepe itself was enormous, studded with shrimp and chicken, and stuffed with onions, bean sprouts, and mushrooms. Some sort of sweet sauce was puddle beneath the crepe, lending just enough spice without masking the delicate flavors of the dish. Alongside the entrée came a pile of T. Ho’s signature quick pickles—a slice of cucumber and shredded carrots with a very pleasant mild pickled flavor. A refreshing garnish to a very hearty meal.

My dining companions stuck to the traditional “House Favorites” side of the menu as well, choosing the spicy Pho ($8.00), Bun Bo Nuong (Beef with Thin Noodle—$8.75), and Stir Fry Beef with Lemongrass on a Hot Steel Plate ($9.50). They are not kidding about the hot steel plate—the sizzling dish could be heard before it was ever seen. While I didn’t taste any distinct lemongrass, I enjoyed the charred flavors in the beef and the freshness of the sauce. The pho, a traditional noodle soup, was indeed spicy and not for the faint-hearted. However, the flavors were so bright and intoxicating that I found myself sneaking spoonfuls even though I am not usually a fan of very spicy foods. The thin noodle dishes (this also can be ordered in chicken, shrimp, or a combination) are among my favorites that T. Ho serves, so I was as usual happy with this bowlful of noodles, salty sweet beef with caramelized edges, and multiple crunchy garnishes. While there are no desserts on the menu, I was glad for it, but those with a sweet tooth can order coffee or tea with condensed milk ($2.50)—a traditional Asian treat. However, after stuffing myself with so many Vietnamese delights I couldn’t imagine eating another thing, and was happy to retire next door to the Pint House.

The Pint House was opened by the owners of T. Ho earlier this year, and is another surprising gem in this less-than-impressive location. The cozy bar features multiple televisions, a nook with dart boards and a foosball table, several booths, a decent beer selection, and live music every Friday night and alternating Tuesday nights. While at first it seemed odd to see a somewhat trendy bar in this part of town, it’s very nice to have a place next door to the already popular T. Ho where you can relax with a beer while digesting your excellent meal. Who knows, maybe Merchants Drive will become the next hot spot in town? Only time will tell.

Food **** (out of 5)
Atmosphere *** ½ (out of 5)
Service *** ½ (out of 5)
Overall ****
Price $$ (out of 5)

T Ho Vietnamese and Oriental Restaurant
815 Merchants Road
Knoxville, TN 37912
(865) 688-5815

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