Good Morning, Vietnam

dining_trannoodleTran Noodle Restaurant brings healthy Southeast Asian cuisine to Watsonville

According to Vatcharin Bhumichitr in his book “Healthy Salads from Southeast Asia,” more salads are consumed in Vietnam than in any of its neighboring countries, and fresh herbs seem to be a focal point of the meal rather than a stand-alone course. We’ve had little opportunity in our county to explore this delicious cuisine until recently, and although pasta is featured in the name of Andy Tran’s new Tran Noodle Restaurant, it’s the fresh fruits and greens, seasonings, and attention to details that steal the show.

With tall ceilings and comfortably spaced tables, this tidy restaurant has a spacious feel. Ebony chairs stand out against the glass-topped white tablecloths, which characteristically hold bins of silverware, soup spoons and chopsticks along with essential sauces. Srirachi, a smooth hot chili purée, and sweet, dark Hoisin can be added to the noodle soups or used as dips for meat. Soy and nuoc mam fermented fish sauces add salty notes.

Lunch business was brisk, as was the takeout counter. A lover of fresh spring rolls ($3.75), I started with a quartet of Salmon Rolls ($5.75). Within the softened rice crêpe wrappers were crunchy cucumbers and carrot with lettuce, avocado and fingers of salmon. The Vietnamese Iced Coffee ($3.50) was darkly roasted and strong, traditionally lightened with sweetened condensed milk and surprisingly thirst-quenching.

Vermicelli rice noodle dishes are served with a variety of meats including Grilled Chicken ($8.25). Opaque snow white noodles were topped with thin strips of seasoned dark chicken dusted with minced peanuts, and served with an equal amount of lettuce, cucumber and mung bean sprouts with shredded mint and purple-stemmed Thai basil. Additional condiments included sambal oelek, a coarser red chili paste with fiery pepper seeds, and mild fish sauce vinaigrette with traditional shavings of carrot and white radish. It was a simple, fresh and healthy meal, colored with spicy, salty and sweet tastes.

Tran Noodle also serves rice plates ($8.50 to $9.75), but by far the most popular meal during this lunchtime was Pho Noodles ($7.25 small and $7.95 large). Paper-thin beef fillet cooked before my eyes in the noodle-filled bowl of savory dark broth with cilantro and green onions. The salad, similar to that served with the grilled chicken, is meant to be added to the bowl. Newcomers peeked at other tables to determine the proper eating technique, one that I have yet to master, which involves a Chinese soup spoon and chopsticks. But forks work quite well and slurping is the norm. Even the small soup was more than I could finish.

As pho is often eaten for breakfast, I ordered the chicken version to go. I warmed the rich, clove-scented chicken broth in the microwave, added noodles and strips of chicken breast and heated it a little more. With the bright salad, Tran had thoughtfully included Hoisin and Srirachi, immediately brightening an otherwise overcast morning.

Tran Noodle Restaurant, 1983 Main St., Watsonville (near Orchard Supply), 763-7696. Beer and wine. Serving Vietnamese specialties Monday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m., until 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. Visit trannoodle.com

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