If you were to draw on of those Venn diagrams for Vietnamese restaurants with overlapping circles showing the places that are a) inexpensive, b) offer authentic, interesting cuisine and c) suitable for a date, Indochin on Grand Ave. in St. Paul would fall right into the sweet spot.
First, a few points of clarification:
a) All Vietnamese restaurants are inexpensive – at least, all the local places. Theoretically, I suppose if you really wanted to prove a point, you could go to Ngon, and order the most expensive entrée on the menu, plus the most expensive bottle of wine and a bunch of starters, and push your bill up into the expensive range, but Ngon also offers traditional Vietnamese entrees for under $10.
b) We can quibble about authentic and interesting, but by “authentic and interesting,” I mean places that go beyond the standard repertoire of Pho and noodle salads and stir-fries. There are lots of places that fall into this category: Hoa Bien, Ngon and Que Nha in St. Paul; and Hoang Thien Y, Quang’s and Pho Tau Bay in Minneapolis, just to name a few. (Indochin is actually an offshoot of Que Nha, and features many of the same dishes.)
c) You can also quibble about what constitutes suitable for a date, but let’s boil it down to the essentials: alcohol, (i.e., wine and beer) and a modicum of ambience.
Indochin might be a little too low-budget to be the right setting for a first date, but it does have that modicum of ambience: some traditional Vietnamese musical instruments mounted on one wall, and a little stand of artificial bamboo along another. And it does offer a minimal selection of beers including Miller Lite, Grain Belt, Summit and Guinness, ($2.50-$3.75), and a couple of budget wines in the usual varietal assortments: cheap: Coppola ($6.95/glass, $28.95/bottle) and cheaper: Chilean Gato Negro ($4.50/glass, $18.95/ bottle).
The menu offers all those standard Vietnamese noodle soups and noodle salads, plus a lot of Chinese dishes – kung pao chicken, Mongolian beef, pork fried rice, etc. But there are also plenty of interesting and authentic items that you don’t find at most Vietnamese restaurants, such as a fresh and lively appetizer of shrimp and pork salad with lotus roots and mint leaves (shown above, $6.95) and golden brown fried banana with jackfruit and fresh coconut (which I haven’t tried; $3.95).
One of the most fun dishes to eat is the do-it-yourself bo cuon tom ($10.95), thinly sliced beef wrapped around shrimp and broiled. This is served with fresh mint and other herbs, pickled carrot and daikon, rice noodles and a stack of moistened sheets of rice paper. You make your own spring rolls by placing the ingredients on the rice paper and carefully rolling them into tight cylinders – much like the spring rolls you can order at most Vietnamese restaurants, but with a more interesting set of ingredients.
Indochin also offers a variety of dishes attractively presented in a clay pot, including dishes of steamed rice with mushroom, bamboo, Chinese sausage and shrimp, beef or chicken ($8.95), or a combination ($9.95), and grilled marinated beef ribs with sautéed vegetables ($10.95) as well as a special hot pot of tilapia with black mushrooms, straw mushrooms onions and cilantro – which sounded interesting but was actually rather bland.
There is lots more on the menu that I would like to try, including the salt and pepper shrimp and squid ($12.95) two beef dishes prepared at the table: bo nhung dam, a fondue; and bon hung vi, beef marinated with sesame and lemongrass cooked on a griddle – both $32.95, and large enough to serve four. (If you want to try them, better go soon; they may be dropped from the menu.)
No desserts are offered, but you can go next door to the newly opened Cow Bella for an interesting assortment of artisan gelatos, in flavors ranging from fig and goat cheese to bacon maple.
Indochin, 1702 Grand Ave. 651-690-2728. Closed Wednesdays.