Kim’s Vietnamese Restaurant, 791 Madison Ave., Albany, 451-9251. Serving 11-9 Sun-Mon, Wed-Thu, 11-10 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $9 (several pho selections) to $15 (grilled sugarcane shrimp)
Sometimes I approach a restaurant at which I’ve never dined before with great trepidation. I want the experience to be a good one. I don’t want to waste my money. And because I’m charged with the responsibility of passing along details of my experience to you, I want to have a good story to tell.
A friend recommended Kim’s Vietnamese Restaurant with the caution that the place didn’t look or feel inviting. At least at first. It’s on Albany’s Madison Avenue, near the corner of Quail Street, in an undistinguished building that previously was home to a political headquarters and a cyber café. My wife and I stopped by last Saturday evening, a peak time for the restaurant business in general—but our dining-room companions were but one other three-top. Had we come at a bad time?
“The kids have left Saint Rose,” our server told us. “We rely on the students for a lot of our business.” That it was the start of a holiday weekend probably also contributed to the neighborhood’s desultory air.
Kim’s has been open for just over a year, a first venture as owner by Quang Kim, who worked in many other kitchens in this country and in his native Vietnam. “I dreamed of having a restaurant for many years,” he says, “and I worked very hard to get here.”
His menu features preparations he learned from his family and developed over the years. “The food might look the same as at other Vietnamese restaurants, but the flavors are my own. And I use the freshest ingredients possible.”
Fried spring rolls and rice paper-wrapped summer rolls dominate the appetizers list, with shrimp, pork or a vegetarian array among the fillings and most priced at $5.50. The pair of shrimp- and pork-filled friend spring rolls I ordered had a flavorful filling filled out with carrots and onions and noodles, and a side dish of lime-scented nuoc mam sauce. The wrappers were appealingly crisp but greasy enough to suggest that the frying temperature was too low (unfortunately not unusual for a slow night).
Our entrées arrived reasonably quickly, which was a good thing. Although I can ignore one or two annoying songs on the background-music playlist, this one seemed to be tuned to an all-Jasmine Thompson channel, and getting hit with “Almost Lover” and “Let Her Go” in quick succession is enough to drain you of any chance at happiness. Fortunately, we were on our way out when her cover of the loathsome “Hey There Delilah” commenced, or I might have begun flinging crockery. Thank goodness I had some Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on hand as an antidote.
Enough! you cry. How is the pho?
That’s a true cause for passion. The Times Union’s Bryan Fitzgerald damned it with faint praise in his November review; the online commentators are, as always, all over the map, but with a decidedly pro-pho leaning. It’s the broth, most insist, and that’s at once the easiest and most difficult part of the equation. Easy, because the hardest part of making a good pho broth is keeping an eye on it as it simmers. Difficult, because it requires a flavor that wishes to be assertive but tucks itself into the background of component meat and vegetables even while inviting you to change its flavor with traditional additives.
I’m in the pro-pho camp. I had a bowl of pho tai chin ($9), which adds beef round and brisket—layers them, in fact, on the rice noodles within—along with the traditional sides of basil leaves, jalapeno slices, a squeeze of lime and a dish of hoisin and sriracha sauces.
The broth was admirable. The presentation was simple and suited the starkness of the surrounding decor. The odious Jasmine faded from my ears as I enjoyed the process of altering the broth after every few slurps.
Kim’s pho also is available with chicken ($9), shrimp and scallops ($14), beef meatballs ($9) and other combos of the beef-based ingredients. If you want your noodles without the soup, there’s a selection of grilled items such as chicken ($11.50), pork ($12.50), beef ($12.50) and shrimp ($13.50) served over rice vermicelli with bean sprouts, cucumber and mint. Fried spring rolls over vermicelli is $11.50; chicken crepes with mushrooms and mung beans are $12.50.
Although a number of vegetarian offerings almost tempted my wife away from her usual fare—and the coconut-tofu mix over noodles ($12.50) was appealing—she found a chicken dish to her liking, a large plate of coconut-milk curry ($12.50) that was sweet enough to defuse any possible heat assault, and contained a mixture of potatoes and onions alongside the fowl.
Other entrées include a marinated and grilled pork chop ($12), grilled lemongrass chicken ($13), curried shrimp and scallops ($14.50), sautéed tuna with mango and cucumber ($12.50) and boneless duck ($14.50).
Based on our visit, the general excellence of the food trumps any reservation I had about the place itself, and Quang Kim deserves our support in pursuing his dream. Besides, there’s something about good pho that’s sneakily addictive, so how nice to have another place in the area to find that fix.