This unassuming corner spot in the brutally warm mid-Valley is billed as a "Vietnamese Vegan Restaurant & Tofu Factory", which is an important distinction as you will see. Kevin Tran invents, experiments, and triumphs, coming up with brilliant vegan food and sneaking new daily specials onto his Facebook profile.
The smells from the kitchen are highly attractive, apparently enough so that Kevin has locals coming in and out all day calling him by name; Kevin will often slouch over the counter chatting with regulars. The colorful wall of photos is a little bewildering, so grab a multi-paged menu. After you order, he will shrug and tell you to pay after.
On a recent 108-degree afternoon* my brain is braised enough to think that a nice hot bowl of soup is a fine idea.
The Curry Duck Soup smells superb, the broth nuanced with a sly coconut twang, pepper-flecked and oil-spotted. It is stunningly balanced, each spoonful of curry broth worthy of contemplation by itself.
And this, despite appearances, is not actually duck. Somehow Mr. Tran has matched the rich, elastic oiliness of duck skin, goosefleshed and chewy, wrapped around a more conventional grained "meat" of gluten, and there's quite a bit of it hiding in the broth. If you have issues with gluten, this shan't be your choice because it gets seriously heavy after a while, but it's so good.
Stiff, disinterested carrot slices and tofu (somewhere) is here, too, along with a clean pile of bean sprouts and your choice of rice or rice vermicelli, available to populate your soup. A few bottles of sriracha and hot red pepper paste line the wall, but you won't need them here.
A fine example of a glass noodle dish that isn't a congealed, chopstick-defeating mass, the Stir-Fried Mung Bean Noodle has clear white onion, violently verdant bell pepper, and mean little slices of serrano. It usually comes with "fish sticks," half-Isosceles triangles of breaded crunch, but I prefer this with "chicken", translucent strips sauce-soaked to a tea brown, completing the textural firmness of meat and egg. Zingy, bonito-like flakes dance atop.
Possibly the most head-clappingly revelatory dish, the Ginger Chicken is of course soy, firm and ungrained like dark meat chicken; collected by a stack of steamed brown rice, the chicken is pale and gleaming from the warm ginger sauce, sweet and unbelievably lovely to the point where you consider buying a ring and declaring your love for it. The dish is ringed by cucumber slices and shredded carrot, made lively with a vinaigrette.
They make stuff to go too, cut sushi rolls and buns and banana desserts, that you are tempted to snatch up from the counter and add to your bill. I won't stop you.
Vinh Loi is open from 9 to 9 daily.
* Mind you, this had cooled down to a hundred and eight. There was a spot on the 101 around Coldwater Canyon where the Mini Cooper was registering 113 that day.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Thai, The Valley )
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