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Alameda Restaurant Review: Mint Leaf

Submitted by on 1, March 18, 2011 – 12:04 am2 Comments

Mint Leaf’s sizzling shaking beef. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.
Mint Leaf’s beer selection. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

By Heather Lyn Wood

Alamedans who don’t frequent the West End’s Marina Village Shopping Center may not all be familiar with Mint Leaf. Located in an unassuming strip of mostly chain stores on Marina Village Parkway, the family-owned Vietnamese establishment is definitely possible to miss. Inside, however, Mint Leaf proves that location isn’t everything. Decorated in modern earth tones with fresh flowers and other soothing touches, this little bistro is a mini oasis with much more to offer than initially meets the eye.

Mint Leaf’s lengthy menu was slightly overwhelming to our two-person party, but we did our best to order as many dishes as possible in order to write a comprehensive review (yes, it’s a tough job). The restaurant has an eclectic selection of imported and domestic beer, which we were more than happy to sample. We started with the Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale, a pale ale from Kiuchi Brewery in Ibaraki, Japan with a vaguely fruity taste and matching lovely red color. Next up was the St. Peter’s Organic English Ale, a light traditional ale with a hoppy aftertaste. We agreed that both beers were affordably priced for imports, and the Red Rice Ale in particular I plan to try again.

Moving on to solid fare, we started with two sets of rolls – the cha gio cuon (avocado imperial spring roll) and dau hu cuon (curry tofu roll). The former is a roll within a roll: fresh rice paper stuffed with a smaller crispy pork imperial roll, avocado and green leaf lettuce. My co-diner described this double roll as “the best of both worlds” with its combination of soft and crispy.

A plainer cousin to the first roll, the dau hu cuon works with very simple fresh ingredients (tofu, plain vermicelli noodles and lettuce) that don’t make a big splash in terms of flavor. But the roll’s natural blandness was offset by its freshness and a thick, sweet peanut dipping sauce. My companion also ordered the nuong (grilled satay) with short ribs. These he described as “so-so,” pointing to a lack of lean meat with too much bone and fat. He said that despite a slight over-salting of the meat, it was “still tasty,” but concluded that he probably wouldn’t order them again.

Already full with starters, we soon tucked in to our entrees. My bun dac biet (saigon vermicelli noodle bowl) had everything I hoped it would: lots of soft vermicelli noodles with sweet fish sauce vinaigrette, golden fried veggie imperial rolls and fresh, firm tofu strips slightly charred on the outside for extra flavor. Filling a large, deep bowl, this dish was an excellent value for $9. My companion ordered the bo luc lac (sizzling shaking beef), cubes of filet mignon wok-tossed in high heat with onions, black pepper and garlic sauce. Served on a large, hot cast iron skillet, the beef was very tender and complimented (but not overshadowed) by its sauce. All of our food was served quickly by friendly, attentive staff, and everything was reasonably priced (at $15, the shaking beef was the highest-priced dish on the menu).

Loaded up with leftovers, to order dessert would have pushed the bounds of culinary decency. And Mint Leaf’s desserts – the fried cream cheese cigar with bananas and brioche custard pudding with chocolate chips, to name two – aren’t exactly light fare. We promised to come back on another night to try them.

With 100 Vietnamese restaurants in the greater East Bay area and several here on the Island, it’s possible to overlook tiny Mint Leaf. You’ll be glad you didn’t.

Mint Leaf Vietnamese restaurant, 831 Marina Village Parkway; 522-2758. Open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

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