Saigon in the Suburbs
Expertly prepared Vietnamese food gets a hearty welcome in Collierville.
Special deep-fried Vietnamese catfish fillet topped with a zesty ginger and ground-pork sauce.
When someone asks me to name "the" place to dine out in Memphis, I usually find it impossible to choose just one. My tastes are wide-ranging and my mind is open, so my answer usually depends on two factors: how experimental of an eater the inquisitor is and how far she's willing to venture outside the I-240 loop.
I think that many of the restless diners vying to find the hottest new place are looking for authenticity of experience above all. That seems to come naturally at New Que Huong (Vietnamese for "New Homeland"), which is located in a plain, quiet shopping center in Collierville. For the past year, owner Tuyen Le, previously a lively, cajoling presence at Saigon Le in Midtown, has offered traditionally prepared dishes from her homeland of Vietnam. In fact, so many items are featured on New Que Huong's menu that just figuring out what to order posed a deliciously overwhelming conundrum. I feel like I only scratched the surface of the offerings during my recent visits there, so alas, the adventure will continue as I happily work my way through the remainder of the dishes in the years to come.
One Sunday at lunch, I brought a wild card with me: a family friend who claimed to never have tasted Vietnamese food. I wondered, would this newbie love our meal . . . or not? I decided to go easy on him by ordering simply and accessibly.
Our first appetizer was goi con, fresh spring rolls in chewy rice paper wrappers stuffed with pork, shrimp, mint leaves, shredded lettuce, and vermicelli noodles. I love spring rolls, and after having had a series of sadly anemic ones around town lately, I could see that these were going to be better; they were stuffed with colorful ingredients, not just a bunch of noodles and nothing else. I did fret a bit when my dining companion started to insist upon unwrapping the roll and eating only the treats inside, but after I demonstrated the application of plum and peanut sauces and self-consciously demonstrated the semi-awkward bite that the rolls called for, all was well. Emboldened after this lesson, my companion eyed our other appetizer, the Chief Shrimp, a fried nest of noodles wrapped around shrimp and bacon on a stick. After a tentative taste, he deemed one delicious. At this point, I knew we were in for a most rewarding — and possibly entertaining — meal.
Next, we selected two meat-based entrees, and I also risked my companion's good graces by ordering a dish made with seitan, a chewy meat substitute. I like that New Que Huong offers a wide selection of vegetarian appetizers and main dishes that include, but also go well beyond, the usual fried tofu. I selected mi can xoa lan, wheat gluten with curry, and the vibrant sauce boasted the distinct richness of coconut milk and also plenty of deep spice and heat. Slivers of white onion and lemongrass were mixed in as accents, as were slices of cucumber and tomato. Served over rice, this dish was a standout.
We had noticed the com tho section on the menu and decided to try one of these clay pot dishes. The com tho dac biet appeared to be a combination of all the other rice clay pots on the menu, featuring stir-fried shrimp, chicken, pork, and beef, with vegetables in a sweet brown sauce. This hearty dish costs a bit more than the others, but it was well worth it. Lastly, the boa xao dua, beef stir-fried with cucumber, was straightforward and pleasantly garlic-laced.
Ready for dessert, we asked our courteous server what was available since none were listed on the menu. He politely said, "Oranges," and set down some chilled slices before us. We must have looked unconvinced or underwhelmed because he quickly asked us if they could make us something. His response revealed volumes about the restaurant's focus on its customers, so we happily ate the oranges
Stopping by New Que Huong on a weeknight for dinner proved beneficial; hearing so many of the other diners around me rave about their meals to each other and to the staff definitely fans the flames of anticipation. This time around, my new and more adventurous dining companion wanted to try things we had never ordered before.
The Half-Moon Vietnamese Crepe, banh xeo, reminded me of an omelet filled with tofu, rice flour, and mushrooms. We wrapped pieces of it into lettuce leaves and mint and doused it with the very mild soy-based sauce that accompanied it. Even though we added a good deal of salt ourselves in order to bring out the flavor of the dish, the hot, just-cooked crepe worked well with the cold greens.
Our small cup of hoahn thanh soup was the surprise of the night. It is the ideal wonton soup. The rustic, handmade look of the thin pork-and-shrimp-filled wontons charmed us, and the brilliant green baby bok choy tasted earthy and bright. The complex broth, concentrated and perfectly savory on its own, was just as pleasing as the other ingredients.
Our entrées didn't disappoint. Tom xao sa, shrimp with lemongrass, was knockout spicy in the best way. Now I can handle a lot of heat, but this dish had us fanning our faces, reaching for soothing plain rice, and laughing giddily. Bites of the Vietnamese pickle, with carrots, daikon radish, and cucumber, from the side of this spicy dish helped cool us down and balanced the shrimp's heat. Bun chao gio, vermicelli noodles topped with chopped fried egg rolls, vinegary juilenned carrots and cucumbers, peanuts, and fish sauce, was full of strong, contrasting flavors and textures that worked together well.
In addition to a good selection of domestic and imported beer, special coffees and teas are available; we tried an iced Vietnamese coffee, which is strong French coffee blended with sweetened condensed milk. It was excellent.
The setting inside New Que Huong is spacious and casual, with strings of wooden beads curtaining the windows, decorative birds perched on bamboo sticks, and pretty items from Vietnam. It isn't stylized or sleek, but it has the feel of a place that has been personalized and set up with comfort in mind.
I found New Que Huong to be centered around the most authentic dining experience of all: cooking that's from the heart. The food is expertly prepared and genuine. Because of this, I'd say it's "the" restaurant to check out right now.