Matthew Lickona 5 p.m., Dec. 4
Following a tip from a friend of mine (he’s a scientist!), I took a little group up to Kearny Mesa to visit Phuong Trang (4170 Convoy Street, 858-565-6750). Reportedly, it’s one of the best Vietnamese family restaurants in the area. There are so many places along Convoy that it really helps to have an inside line or some direction beforehand, rather than questing blindly while hungry. I found Phuong Trang in a strip mall (surprise!) south of Balboa Ave.
It’s big, that’s for sure. Even with the parking lot full, there were plenty of empty tables in the dining room on a weeknight. Not having to worry about getting a seat; that’s nice. There was about a fifty-fifty split between multi-generational east-Asian families and in-the-know white people, so there’s no calling Phuong Trang a hidden gem waiting to blow up, that’s for sure.
Of the dishes I sampled from the 200+ available items, the salted lemonade and preserved plum drinks stood out as the biggest winners. Barely sweet and packing a salty, fermented wallop, they might be a bit of a stretch for some people. Nevertheless, the briny, weird flavor is perfect with the fare at Phuong Trang, which tends to be very light.
For the wallet’s sake, it’s good to learn that appetizers are $4-$6 and entrees run $6-$12.
Another standout was a dish of wide, soft rice noodles (banh tam) served with lettuce, bean sprouts, and a curious, surimi-like skewer of ground shrimp. Doused with hot coconut milk, and a liberal application of hoisin sauce and scorching-hot chili paste, it hit all the right notes.
Vegetable hot chili rolls included thin slices of some very good lap cheong (Chinese sausage), but lacked any noticeable hot chili burn. They proved to be admirable vessels for fish- and peanut sauces, more than anything else.
Less inventive, a sweet and sour shrimp dish could have been pulled from the food court at the Mission Valley mall. Its main advantage was generous portioning.
A dish of stir-fried egg noodles and vegetables held the middle-ground between the excellent banh tam and the sweet and sour dish. The noodles had a fun, chewy texture, but the sauce that bathed the bok choy, mushrooms, tofu, and broccoli was like a lame dude at a party, just hanging out and contributing nothing, bringing down everyone else with his grumpy ways.
While it’s definitely a step up from the average pho shop on the corner--at least in terms of variety--with the hit-or-miss tendencies of the food, I’d say that Phuong Trang doesn’t bump Que Huong (in City Heights) from the top of my personal list of Vietnamese family restaurants. Nevertheless, with family sized hot-pot and rice wrap dishes on the menu, there’s no doubt that Phuong Trang can be a viable destination for larger parties north of San Diego.