Kim Son Restaurant
349 Whitney Ave
Gretna, LA 70056
Napoleon Rating: ***/*****
Vietnamese food is spreading across New Orleans, and people outside the Vietnamese community are growing more familiar with it. But things used to be much different. In the 1980s, if a Vietnamese restaurant hoped to lure customers outside of its community it served a menu of familiar Chinese-American dishes to get them in the door. Kim Son was one of these pioneers, and today its clientele is roughly split between people plowing into huge soups and sizzling platters of beef, and others playing it safe with the American-style Chinese dishes.
This is a large, comfortable, somewhat dowdy restaurant, done in the familiar style of Chinese restaurants all over the country. There's a lot of Asian décor and of course a huge fish tank for the gawking pleasure of the kids. The big round tables with lazy susans are ideal for parties of more than four.
It pays to ask specific questions about dishes when ordering here. The menu is huge and highly diverse, but the wait staff does not do much to guide you through or sell it. I wish they would offer more insight. Sometimes, the only way to learn that you could have had some delicious specialty is to see one heading to another, better-informed table.
The menu goes on and on, and your options for starters are by no means limited to the appetizer list. For instance, rice paper spring rolls are the go-to order at Vietnamese restaurants, and Kim Son does these as well as anywhere. But if you're sharing a meal around the table -which is the optimal way to eat here - I suggest finding a few dishes that you can all pick at, like steamed mussels in garlic sauce or the charbroiled shrimp with steamed rice noodle cakes. There are many soups that can either be small starters or meals in their own right.
One of the real highlights of this kitchen is a line of dishes called "salt baked," which are prepared with a range of seafood. The name is a misnomer though. For instance, salt baked shrimp or squid are really coated with a light batter, fried and then seasoned with a great deal of black pepper and onions. The salt baked tofu is a favorite even for people who don't normally order tofu, while the salt baked crabs are a true family-style feast of in-shell crabs, chopped up and coated in peppery butter (this also makes a great, if messy, first course).
There are a number of dishes that require preparation at the table, which makes a fun exercise in do-it-yourself dinner. Order the bo nuong vi, for instance, and the waitress brings a plate of raw, marinated beef and knobs of butter, followed by a small, self-contained grill on which you cook it all up. You grill a few slices of meat, roll them up with fresh herbs and pickled vegetables, dribble on the sauces and encase them in rice paper wrappers. The bo nhung dam calls for a similar approach, but this time involves a pot of bubbling rice vinegar in which you cook the raw beef fondue style.
The Vietnamese soups are better elsewhere, but still reliable if all you really want is a bowl of pho. The Chinese-American dishes, like the lemon chicken or Szechuan beef, are fairly standard but generally better than the norm.
The kitchen can fetch up a bowl of ice cream but no one ever seems to order dessert here.
There's a full bar that includes some throwbacks to the old Polynesian cocktail craze - so you can get a fog cutter, a Singapore sling or an electric watermelon, complete with cocktail umbrella.
Prices are all over the map, from lunch specials for less than $8 to some elaborate, full-table presentations for more than $20. But anything that looks pricey is almost always intended to be shared around the table and really few dishes for one cost more than $12. Two people can eat very well here, with drinks, for about $50.
We have a lot more options for exploring Vietnamese cuisine now than when Kim Son first opened, but this veteran of the local dining scene remains a solid option with an enormous range of dishes to try. As long as you're comfortable finding your own way around its twists and turns, it should deliver an immensely enjoyable meal.