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Nha Trang’s Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio was on point. Photo by Lee Chastain.

There was a time when you’d have to drive out to the suburbs to get good Vietnamese food, but that’s thankfully no longer the case. Enough of us have warmed up to the (admittedly tamed) flavors of Southeast Asia that a restaurant like Nha Trang can open up alongside perennial favorites like King Tut Egyptian Restaurant and Benito’s Mexican Cuisine and feel like it fits right in.

[box_info]Nha Trang Vietnamese Cuisine
1508 W Magnolia Ave, FW. 817-810-0438. Lunch: 11am-3pm Mon-Fri. Dinner: 5-9pm Tue-Thu, 5-10pm Sat-Sun. All major credit cards accepted.[/box_info]

As much as any new restaurant on the West Magnolia Avenue strip, Nha Trang matches the neighborhood vibe of casual, friendly intimacy. The small space is contemporary without being over-decorated, with lime-green walls that sooth the sun-baked soul.

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My guest and I arrived on a recent weekday evening and had the place nearly to ourselves. As we perused the menu, it became clear that the kitchen had tailored the selections to meet local tastes. There were no tendons or tripe, no fishballs or shrimp paste. The meats on the menu were of the unintimidating sort — grilled pork and unprocessed seafood mostly, with a little beef and chicken around the edges. If that seems a bit sad, as though some authenticity may have been lost in translation, we have no one but ourselves to blame –– we aren’t about to order beef tendons, no matter how much we like seeing them on the menu.

On the other hand, the menu was a perfect introduction for my guest, who had never eaten Vietnamese food before. We started with an appetizer of potstickers, six plump dumplings packed with minced pork, flavored with ginger and garlic. The wonton wrapper was crackling brown on one side, tender on the other. Potstickers are frequently served with a dip of soy sauce and vinegar that assaults the palate, but these came with a translucent slip of a sauce that tasted more of rice wine. It was an elegant take on a dish that all too often gets phoned in.

Salt and pepper are so ubiquitous that we hardly notice them in our food unless they suddenly aren’t there. With Nha Trang’s salt and pepper soft shell crab, though, these flavors asserted themselves with an urgency that made us sit up and pay attention. The two crabs arrived lightly fried and thoughtfully chopped into ready-to-eat chunks, tossed with strings of sautéed peppers and onions. Plenty of flaked salt and cracked peppercorns dotted the dish, but it worked nicely with the crabmeat. A side sauce of sriracha mayonnaise provided relief when needed.

My guest ordered the Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, rice vermicelli with grilled pork and a sliced eggroll. It’s Vietnamese Food 101, but the kitchen prepared it expertly. The grilled pork had a charbroiled crust that infused the dish with a smoky flavor that can’t be produced on a common gas grill. The eggroll had the bubbly, explosive crunch that only comes from a fresh wonton wrapper made in-house.

I ventured a little further afield with the Banh Xeo, a crispy rice crepe seasoned with turmeric. The crunchy yellow hull contained chopped pork and shrimp. The flavors were delicious, but the crepe had a short shelf life — I was able to enjoy only half of it before it got too soggy to be any fun.

Nha Trang is a good fit for the location, with a full beverage menu including cocktails and liquors, and enough local IPAs to show they know their audience.

[box_info]Nha Trang Vietnamese Cuisine
Potstickers     $5
Soft shell crab appetizer     $9
Vermicelli with grilled pork and eggroll     $11
Rice crepe with pork and shrimp     $11[/box_info]

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