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[MSP] Ngon - Did Dara (City Pages) and I eat at the same restaurant?

Went to Ngon on University Ave last night based on Dara's (City Pages) glowing review of Ngon's pho noodle soup. Besides the fact that the decor was a great improvement from the previous restaurant that was there and the occasional flashes of potential, the whole experience was a disapppointment. Quality ingredients, poor flavoring....

We started out ordering the spring rolls - this was a sublime dish which led us to hope that this was a precursor of great things to come. The spring rolls were fried to perfection -little crunchy bites with flakey layers and the filling was moist and fresh. Filling ingredients were chopped consistently so that each bite yielded bits of ground pork, carrot, cabbage and noodle.

Unfortunately, then things started to go downhill from there. First, the pho noodle soup that Dara ranted and raved out. I knew it was a bad sign when the waitress brought out the basil, bean spout side plate - the 1 stalk of basil was wilted - no scent at all. Bean sprouts were browning on the edges and the lime slices were drying out. Then 20 minutes later, the pho noodle soup arrives. (normally, pho is brought out within 5 minutes of ordering). The noodle soup that Dara describes as "potent, hauntingly spiced and sweet, rich and beefy brown, onion-touched and herbal, peppery and anise-scented" was a salty thin broth with none of the subtle touches of cinnamon, cilantro, sliced onion and anise with a clear beef flavor that I've come to expect at places like Pho Ca Dao, Que Nha or Quang's. The soup tasted more like an oversalted commercial beef flavored canned broth finished with a touch of green onions. The noodles sat in a congealed pile at the bottom and the fact that the one sprig of basil added no additional flavor didn't help matters. On the plus side, the slices of beef (I got the same multi-beef pho dac biet that Dara mentions in her article) were better than some of the cheaper cuts that I've seen in other pho soups. The beef meatballs which I tend to avoid tasted like they were home made and their tripe was cut into small portions. I ate most of the meat and only 1/3 of the noodles. Couldn't stomach the salty broth.

The other dish my partner ordered was the com tam (broken rice) dish with the grilled pork and fried egg. First of all, our experience with grilled pork rice dishes in Vietnamese restaurants (Que Nha, Quang, Bo Bien, Trieu Chau) is that the pork is marinated in a sauce and then grilled so that it comes out smokey and each bite of pork reflects the deep marinade. This dish had the pork with the requisite grill marks but was topped off by this sweet teriyaki commercial sauce that my partner said reminded him of "food court Chinese food". It was terrible. In fact, he wouldn't finish it. Pluses: the rice itself was fresh.

Restaurant decor: the decor is beautiful. It's definitely a step up for the Vietnamese restaurant scene.

Service: as other posts have mentioned, service is slow for a Vietnamese restaurant. It's not a place to have a quick weekday dinner. The place wasn't too busy - only 4 tables occupied. I'd hate to see what would happen if they were even half full - given that our dishes are considered Vietnamese fast food, a 20 minute wait for noodles and rice was excessive.

Presentation: the presentation of the dishes is a notch above those you get at the other Vietnamese restaurants. However, taste needs to accompany the presentation....

Ingredients: care has gone into the selection of the ingredients used in the dishes - the overly salty broth, disgustingly sweet and commercial teriyaki sauce on the pork and wilted basil nonewithstanding.

We felt like we ate at a different restaurant than the one that Dara raved about. We were hoping to be able to add Ngon to our list of Vietnamese restaurants that we frequent but unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case. Perhaps we hit it on a bad night but if our experience was an indicator, I fear for the longevity of Ngon.

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  1. Wow--my experiences have been very different than yours. I'm not saying that every dish at Ngon is a hit, because there are a few misses, but I didn't find the broth in the pho salty at all. I've only tried it once, so, who knows, I'm hardly an expert. The com tam we ordered was fantastic--one of my favorite dishes at Ngon.

    Maybe you and I were eating at different restaurants. ;-) Sorry you had such a bad experience.


    1. It's not just me! Thank you for this!

      The broth has been discussed before:



      I thought the broth's flavor was way too subtle. If only mine had been salty! I really think they have consistency issues, rather than overall quality issues. Many have went and loved the broth. I believe they had better broth than I did.

      1 Reply
      1. re: pgokey

        Yes, a couple of folks--including mnfoodie and pgokey-- have expressed disappointment with the pho--but I believe spahkee has been the first to report that he had the misfortune of the pho as being overly salty. For my part, I thought I'd tasted a "warm" spice upfront--maybe a hint of nutmeg or cinnamon, perhaps--with a slight hint of an after taste of star anise. If the dish were too salty, I don't know how I could have tasted those other hints of flavors. They were subtle to be sure.

        pgokey, thanks for those links to those other Ngon bistro pho discussions. I don't know if you're familiar with the "permalink" feature, but you can use that to take the person to the exact post in the thread where something specific is discussed, rather than just taking them to the top of the thread. If you haven't played with that feature yet, it's kinda fun. (Sorry, I'm nerdy that way, with a rather warped sense of "fun".) :) .

        For example, here's a couple of permalinks to the "disappointment" with Ngon Bistro's pho.


        I wonder if we're noticing inconsistencies with different chefs?

        By the way, it was the com tam (#41) broken rice with English cucumber, tomato and fish sauce on the side with marinated pork loin, shredded bbq pork, pork skin, and fried eggs (#41) that we tried that night that we enjoyed. It sounds like the same dish spahkee got. I only got a small taste of it though, so I don't know if I have enough "data" to comment forcefully on it. I didn't notice the teriyaki-like sauce or stale rice, though, in my tasting of the dish, and don't recall anyone else mentioning that. A "taste" is not the same as eating a full serving of it, though.

        But, I mispoke above--I did enjoy that #41 dish, but it was actually the bun tau hu (rice vermicelli with ginger glazed tofu, and fresh shitaki mushrooms) (#51) that I really loved and is one of my favorite dishes.

        My other favorites are the duck confit, sweet potato fritter, the ginger roasted chicken, the ginger creme brulee, and the mung bean cheesecakes. I think these dishes are all outstanding.


      2. OK finally tried Ngon last night. My experience follows. (My husbands thoughts are in parentheses.)

        Ambience was just lovely. ("")

        Service was excellent. We were very closely attended to, water glasses were always refilled promptly, we ordered three apps and an entree and they (of their own volition) coursed the meal for us AND split the entree for us. Friendly withouth being too chatty, to boot. Really, we were very impressed. ("")

        Now the important stuff:

        Lemongrass Beef Wraps: Super tender, with a sweet/savory glaze, served with lettuce leaves, rice noodles, and pickled carrot and (what? turnip? daikon?). I wished I could pick out more of the flavors in the beef seasonings - it was slightly one-dimensional. But really good for one-dimensional. (Husband loved these.)

        Shrimp pate wrapped around sugar cane. Hmm, isn't this the one Kathy Jenkins said was one of the best apps in town? I found it pleasant enough, but it sort of reminded me of a gussied up, shrimp-infused hot dog wrapped around the sugar cane. I guess the rubberiness was what turned me off. I'd definitely eat it any day, but I won't think about it while I'm away either. (Husband ate his portion, but agreed about the hot dog characteristic.)

        Duck confit - oh ducky ducky. . . this was fantastic. Super succulent, tender duck in a green, lightly coconutty, gingery, herby, wonderful brothy sauce, served with sliced of Vietnamese baguette (you know, it has that lightness and delicate crispiness to the crust). I could eat it all day long. (Husband didn't care much about this dish - he liked it OK but didn't see anything special about it.)

        Rice noodles with ginger glazed tofu - Thanks for the rec, TDQ. Really enjoyed this take on noddle salad - mixed greens with herbs topped with rice nodles topped with little pillows of tofu and the tenderest shiitakes. I'm so afraid of rubbery, tough shiitakes (have had stems passed off as edible way too many times) that I usualy avoid ordering them, but I knew TDQ wouldn't lead us astray. The gingery glaze worked very well with the tofu, but kept very nicely to itself - they didn't douse the whole salad with it or anything. And the herbiness of the greens, mixed with the noodles and some fish sauce was very pleasant and light.

        Vanilla mung bean cheesecake - wonderful. The crust incorporated a whole lot of toasty coconut. Now I like a pretty crisp crust on my cheesecake, and while I wouldn't say this one achieved crispness perfection, it was well on its way. Very nice. The cheesecake filling was not too sweet and was modestly flavored, and topped with more toasted coconut, which borught out the vanilla beautifully. (Husband is not at all a dessert fan. Really - I usually have to pressure him to eat a bite or two just so I dont' have to admit to eating the whole thing myself - he LOVED this and ate his whole half with no prodding!)

        Value: Excellent - all that food plus one (shared) beer came to just over $40. VERY reasonable considering the quality, the ambience, the service, and the quantity (not that portions are large, but we were both pretty stuffed by the time we left).

        In all, we really enjoyed our meal, and we're really glad that Ngon is an option in the hood! We'll probably continue to haunt Saigon much more frequently, but it's really nice to have another option - you know, the kind of place you can bring your mother in law and not worry that she'll be grossed out by the dirty floor.

        2 Replies
        1. re: diesel

          I'm glad you had a good experience! And, yes, Kathie Jenkins did rave about the sugar cane shrimp appetizer. I have to admit, I talked my dining companion into ordered that in lieu of the duck confit on my last visit. It was okay, but I would have rather had the duck confit. :) . I agree that the texture was a bit off-putting. I can't remember whether it was grote or foureyes--one of those folks, I think--said there was a better rendition of that shrimp dish out there in the Twin Cities: I wish I knew where because it still sounds intriguing.


          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            grote had noted that Quang's also served shrimp on sugar canes. We went to Pho Tau Bay for lunch today and noticed they had them there too. They have regular grilled shrimp on sugarcane as an appetizer and shrimp paste on sugar cane over rice noodles as an entree.

        2. It's interesting that there's such a yes-no experience at Ngon. I, too, wonder if they have a main chef and a not-so-good chef.

          Mr. Tastebud and I went last week - Monday, I think - and absolutely loved our food.

          We got the fabulous duck confit appetizer, which was really curried-coconut duck soup in a huge bowl. We ate half, and took the rest home (the leftovers were great). This dish is worth driving across town for, in my opinion.

          Mr. Tastebud got the marinated grilled chicken over cellophane noodes, and said he really liked it. I got one bite - it was great. The spices in the chicken were delicate yet pronounced, and the glaze was quite sweet (a good thing, in my book).

          Because I have learned to pay attention to menu tips from TDQ, I ordered the ginger-glazed tofu and shitaki mushrooms on cellophane noodles. Wow! Extremely yummy. The glaze was delicious and very, very sweet - just skirting the limit of what I like in a main dish. But I loved it. Thanks, TDQ!

          And, though I didn't order any wine, I love their wine list. It's full of food-friendly, Asian-dish-loving wines. Whoever picked out the wines really knows about pairing wine with Vietnamese food. I can't wait to go back when I'm not the designated driver.


          1. Had lunch at Ngon last week with my wife (who is Thai) and our best friend, who is born and raised Vietnamese. Our experience was a lot like many of the other posters, but I'll add these somewhat caustic comments. Pho is comfort food, to Asian people what your grandma's meatloaf probably is to you. It's street food, it's supposed to be simple and cheap, and the broth is not the object of the dish. It's the noodles! Hard as it is to understand for non-Asians, the broth is for keeping the noodles hot and for adding a little flavor. The protein comes from the meat bits and other chewy bits most Asians like in their soups. Watch an asian eat pho and you'll see most of the broth still in the bowl when they're done eating and all of the noodles gone.

            Pho isn't fine dining, nor are shrimp paste on sugar can sticks or broken rice entrees. Trying to make these into fine dining at Ngon is silly, and explains the COMPLETE absence of any Asian diners other than my wife and our friend when we went there. It's too expensive for what it is, and it is decidedly not better in taste than any of the most popular pho joints on either side of the river. We were among three tables of diners there for lunch last week at 12:30 PM. That was as busy as it got for the 90 minutes we were there.

            Our drilled down thoughts? It'll be closed within a year because they're not focused on the market that BUYS pho, etc., for lunch on a daily basis in St. Paul. They're after 'ladies who lunch' and those folks are going to come once, maybe twice in six months at the most. Quang, Pho 79, Pho Tau Bay, Saigon, Pho Ca Dao... they're all better, and they are all cheaper, and they ALL have a line out the door every day at lunch time.

            31 Replies
            1. re: HuaGung

              Thanks for your input on this HuaGung. I hope you hang around the forum to add your insights about other chow.

              Ngon Bistro isn't a noodle house--it's a bistro. Personally, I don't think the pho is their strongest dish. Nor is the sugar cane shrimp. Is there not room for a restaurant in the Twin Cities that serves fantastic duck confit, fantastic sweet potato fritters, fantastic ginger roasted chicken and fantastic desserts using, where possible seasonal and local ingredients at affordable prices? Or, do all restaurants have to be noodle houses? Why does something have to be exactly traditional street food and dirt cheap in order to be delicious and, therefore, worth eating? Are chefs with Vietnamese heritage not allowed to experiment with their cuisine or is this young chef forever bound to reproduce the street food of his parents homeland?

              To extend your analogy, as much as I love my grandmothers meatloaf (or, to pick a real example, her chicken noodle soup with the fat, lumpy, exceptionally tender homemade noodles), I'd be bummed out if all "American" restaurants served only chicken noodle soup and traditional meatloaf and there were no 112 Eaterys, no Lucia's, no Alma's... What's wrong with taking it to the next step?

              P.S. Anne, I'm glad your experience at Ngon was a good one. Did you and Mr. Tastebud not save room for dessert? ;-) .


              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                Perhaps my initial comments weren't given with enough context. I apologize for that and mean no disrespect to the people running Ngon.

                However, I DO think Ngon is doomed BECAUSE their fare is too close to what most Asians consider street food, and not different enough to classify it as a true Vietnamese Bistro. Why bother with traditional Pho at all if you're not after that market segment? The pho on the menu at Ngon is pretty standard stuff, it doesn't venture into new creative areas in any way, nor do the broken rice entrees. Serving a similar but inferior pho at a 25% premium in price is not distinguishing your cooking skill or 'kitchen vision' in any way. Our Vietnamese friend had no issue with the pho beyond it's price. It was fine, but not special, and it just did not justify the price. Her comments were more to the "why would I pay more for what is better and cheaper elsewhere?". I agree with her take on that.

                My wife and I do search out lots and lots of asian restaurants in the MSP area and are always excited when we find new things that strike a happy chord for us. Sometimes tradition is best, sometimes new recipes that surprise us become our favorites. So to your point TDQ about whether this young chef should be able to experiment? I wish he would. His menu offerings aren't terribly different from what you can get elsewhere in town. Being an also-ran right now doesn't help him, especially in the neighborhood he has chosen for his restaurant.

                BTW, the nickname I used is Thai for "Shrimp Head" -- a less than delicate description of a not-so-bright person. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions!

              2. re: HuaGung

                Thanks HuaGung, very interesting thoughts.

                I'm thinking about the difference between catering to the population who eats pho every day versus the "ladies who lunch" and the market in between. I rarely see a Vietnamese person in Jasmine Deli. It's mostly 20-30 something hipsters, but Jasmine Deli does fantastic business. It seems like they found the balance between Vietnamese pho shops and an environment that's welcoming to non-Vietnamese. Perhaps Ngon can do the same? While unfortunately I don't live close enough to University to go weekly, I will certainly bring friends there that are not regular Vietnamese food eaters and want to dip their toes in, and if we're looking for a nice, weekday dinner. Maybe Ngon would do better on EAT street? Or closer to Uptown?

                I also agree w/ TDQ that I don't think they're hoping to be a pho restaurant, there are only 2 or 3 pho options on the menu, right? Actually now that I think of it Ngon seems more similar to the expat-focused restaurants I ate in while in Vietnam five years ago, than anyplace aimed a locals over there.

                I've never been to Cafe BonXai but it seems that they're also trying to do this slightly upscale from dive Asian fusion thing. Seems like this is a trend.

                1. re: HuaGung

                  Hua, my trip to Ngon was with a white friend who eats at a lot of Vietnamese restaurants, and is dating a Vietnamese guy (and has meals with his family at home). She had the same reaction as you did - pho was pricier than normal, and there are other places in town that do a more authentic deal.

                  I guess for a dish like pho, I would just as soon get it from "hard core" pho places. That said, they do have lots of other yummy things there that makes the place worthwhile.

                  I think the place is sort of caught in a weird middle ground, and it's in the wrong location for it. It's not trying to being a wholly authentic, good old Vietnamese place. It's trying to compete with some more...Westernized interpretations that one might find in Uptown or 50th and France. I think there are plenty of people who would enjoy this place, but I'm thinking it's not in the right neighborhood to really maximize on its target market.

                  If Sawadtee can make it, so can Ngon. Sawadtee had the insight to do their schtick in "destination" locations, though.

                  1. re: pgokey

                    Oh, it makes me sad you're comparing it to Sawadtee, which isn't very good food, "authentic" or otherwise.

                    Honestly, I think Dara did Ngon a disservice by raving about their pho, thereby driving hard core pho seekers there.


                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      I don't think the food compares! In terms of overall quality, there is a world of difference.

                      I was only referring to how Sawadtee is not exactly a wholly authentic thai place that's been tailored to a non-thai crowd.

                      1. re: pgokey

                        i've actually seen a ton of asian diners in ngon, i have no idea what you're talking about. they are not the new immigrants who frequent quang or pho 79, however, they are young, second generation, often sporting piercings and tats, or very professional looking-- hip. they know they could dip over to quang for a cheaper bowl of so-called-authentic pho (quang is my fave, btw, & i think that comparing the pho at quang to the pho at ngon is silly).

                        i don't think the folks running ngon are cooking for their grandmas, or "the motherland", i think they're cooking for people of their own generation, and from their own experience, which is based here and now. trying to keep putting the vision someone had for this restaurant in such a little box that it doesn't fit into! it's really quite insulting, i think. the comparison between a corporate restaurant chain like sawatdee and ANY independent, chef-driven restaurant like ngon is ludicrous too.

                        1. re: soupkitten

                          I didn't know sawatdee was a corporate chain!

                          EDIT: here's a link to their website--it looks like they have numerous locations (more than I realized), but it still looks sort of "family" owned. No?


                          1. re: The Dairy Queen

                            i actually assumed it was a chain based on the proliferation of the restaurant locations and the cookie-cutter image all of them share. it does look like one founding family-- still, with 8 or so locations, the, er, family-owned corporation would be able to leverage their way into the "destination locations" referred to by pgokey, while an independent restaurant would open where a suitable space was available, close to other independent restaurants like ngon did. my point is that ngon's location has everything to do with it being a brand-new, chef's first restaurant, independent, do or die thing-- the sawatdees' locations have everything to do with mass-marketing, corporate branding, and a very great deal of money behind them. there is no "insight" to sawatdee vs the implied lack at ngon. it's money, pure and simple.

                            1. re: soupkitten

                              Soupkitten, I am not sure what you're arguing with - do you disagree that Ngon would do better in a better location? That was really my only point. The reason I referenced Sawadtee was two-fold - it thrives because of its location, and they have at least one aspect in common.

                            2. re: The Dairy Queen

                              I know one of the original founders socially (I can't really say we're close friends - he's moved to Orange, CA, and we haven't kept in touch, much).

                              It was started by a couple of guys, and I think a portion of a Thai family. As the business took off and expanded, the original owners sold their interest, and the restaurant chained out throughout the cities, and the menu and quality went through some changes.

                              It's a local chain in the way that Buca used to be, or sort of like Dunn Brothers is.

                            3. re: soupkitten

                              I'm simply saying when I was there, all of the diners were white. I guess I was there on a atypical day, but Hua reported the same thing.

                              As for the rest of what you've said, we seem to be competitively agreeing.

                              The comparison isn't ludicrous, and I think you are still missing my point. Let me re-explain: You think I am comparing the chef-driven aspect to the chain aspect, and I am not. Two comparison points don't need to be identical in every regard for a legitimate point to be made in making the comparison.

                              As you said yourself, Ngon is not shooting for the FOB crowd, they are shooting toward a more Americanized crowd. Second generation, assimiliated, or tailored more to the natives than anything else. That aspect is true of Sawadtee, too - the restaurant is aimed more toward the masses, and is less interested in replicating a tried and true Thai experience. Yes, the results are totally different in terms of quality, but that's because of one of their differences rather than any of their similarities.

                              Edit in: I'll add the editorial comment that I don't think any of this makes the restaurant less worthy of celebration. It might explain the pho situation, though, which is honestly neither here nor there. I am not sure, however, why it's silly to compare pho dishes at different restaurants. If we can't compare the pho at Ngon to the pho at Quang's, what are we to compare it to?

                              1. re: pgokey

                                There's no reason you can't compare the pho at Ngon to the pho at Quang's. If someone posted a completely new thread "Where is the best pho in the Twin Cities" certainly both of these places might be mentioned.

                                But, to borrow a comparison from another conversation in another thread, it's a bit like comparing the burger at the Nook, which more or less specializes in burgers and bar food, to the burger at 112 Eatery and then predicting that 112 Eatery is going to go out of business within the year because its burger doesn't hit all the "comfort food" touch points of a more typical burger, is sort of missing the point of what they are trying to do at 112 Eatery. Even though the burger at 112 Eatery is quite good, hardly anyone goes to 112 Eatery for just the burger.

                                EDIT: and for the record, I actually have seen people eat at 112 Eatery--post Vikings game--and order just the burger and fries. I'm not saying its unheard of, I'm just saying when you order a fancy pants brie cheese burger on an English muffin, you're not really expecting a Nook burger kind of experience. This goes back to my point that I think Dara has done Ngon a disservice, in a way, by not properly setting expectations about the pho.


                                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                  Why, then, would one order the burger, if you can get a better burger elsewhere? Why not order something they do uniquely well?

                                  When I go to a place, I want to order what they do best, and if want a good (insert food item here), I will go to the place that does it best, or at least better than most do it.

                                  1. re: pgokey

                                    But I love 112 Eatery’s burger. I DO think they do it better than most. I do think they do it uniquely. I don't know if they do it "uniquely well," but if I like it, why should I refrain from ordering it just because I've had great burgers elsewhere in my lifetime? What if I'm in a fancypants burger mood? Or trying to keep the tab low? Or had a crappy day and work and am in need of “comfort” food while my dining companion is in the mood for foie gras meatballs? Or have some kind of burger obsession? (You KNOW our esteemed davydd would try the pork tenderloin sandwich if it were on the menu at 112 Eatery...)

                                    I mentioned both 112 Eatery and the Nook in the “best burger” thread because I love them both. Even if 112 Eatery’s burger is different from the way my dad makes it, why should I refrain from ordering it if I like the way it tastes?

                                    But, to your point, this is why, when I go to 112 Eatery (or Ngon Bistro) I try to go with an adventurous friend or two in hopes I can get those folks to agree to split the burger (or at Ngon, the pho—yes, I’ve actually split it with someone) with me so I can indulge in some of the other wonderful dishes I adore on their menu. Since I’ve explored nearly their entire menu, it’s hard to make the case that my having occasionally ordered the comfort food has kept me from appreciating the full range of what they are trying to accomplish at 112 Eatery. I don’t get the burger every time I go, although, I would have no problem doing so if it were the only thing I liked.

                                    I don't think there's such a thing as only one way to make a burger or only one way to make pho. As long as I know how the dish is traditionally prepared and am not mistaking a fancypants version for an “authentic” version, what harm is there to me in enjoying the dish, however it happens to be prepared, if I like the way it tastes? Many interpretations of standard dishes can be delicious. Why should I limit myself to only enjoying those dishes that conform to the traditional preparations if the experimental preparations rock my world?


                                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                      I guess part of the difference is that you eat out far, far more often than I do. By the time I hit up a place once or twice, my list of new places to try has grown long enough where I have to move on to try new things. I am pretty much only trying things that are unique or exceptionally good at a place.

                                      I get the burger at 112 is probably good, but as long as I know I can get better burgers elsewhere, I'll try out something more unique to 112. If I ate there all the time, I would likely be difference.

                                      So the same with pho, I suppose.

                                      1. re: pgokey

                                        If you only have one visit to 112 Eatery, don't order the burger. ;-). If you only have one visit to Ngon Bistro, get the duck confit and the ginger creme brulee.


                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                          That's where I'm coming from. When I went to Ngon, I was excited to try pho, because Dara raved so much about it, and particularly, the broth. You're right that she set up a very high expectation for it, and they don't seem to deliver on it, at least consistently.

                                          To Hua, I do understand that one doesn't drink the broth. But it's still fair to expect a certain flavor in it, especially when all one hears about is its flavor.

                                          1. re: pgokey

                                            Being the author of the originating thread, I thought I'd jump in as this discussion has meandered and brought up multiple interesting topics. I do agree with the various posters that there are two issues with Ngon - one is that if Ngon is trying to be a "beyond pho" restaurant, Dara did them a disservice by raving about their pho broth and their com tam - both of which are "traditional" street Vietnamese dishes which are done well by multiple restaurants on University Ave, Eat Street in Minneapolis as well as other locales in the Twin Cities. It was because of Dara's review that we ended up going to Ngon - specifically to try out a new place for their pho.

                                            Secondly, there's the issue of whether or not it'll succeed. I'm sure time will tell as to whether or not their menu will draw the crowds that will be needed to sustain this business. My experience last week would say that based on their traditional dishes, their competition will beat them out given the price premium and the relative quality we got on that particular night. However, if they can get repeat business from their other entrees and offerings like the duck confit and their dessert menu, they may make it - although like some posters have mentioned, their location may also be a handicap.

                                            I'm Asian and my husband is white. I grew up in Asia and my husband travels extensively in Asia. Based on Dara's review, I expected that Ngon would be more akin to Little Szechuan - authentic flavors, better decor and upscale than the Chinese restaurants like Shuang Cheng or Hong Kong Noodle. This is why we were disappointed with our experience with Ngon last week and are setting our sights back to our mainstays of weekday fast cheap eats.

                                            1. re: spahkee

                                              Well said, and much more eloquently than my ascerbic words earlier. I think your comments are spot-on.

                                              1. re: spahkee

                                                Interesting points, spahkee and HuaGung, in a fascinating discussion.

                                                Me, I view Ngon as a fusion restaurant that combines Vietnamese and American traditions. Much as I love the "traditional" pho places in town, I've been pining for a Vietnamese fusion place after great experiences in Portland (Pho Van) and Paris (Tan Dinh).

                                                Ngon certainly isn't in the same vein as the lovely "weekday fast cheap eats" on University Ave, like Pho Ca Dao, Trung Nam, Saigon, and others. And I agree that Ngon's location isn't ideal for attracting the right patrons. But I think they've got their own niche, and they do it well (though my opinion is based on one visit).

                                                I really hope they can succeed. That's a selfish wish on my part, because I love the coconut-curried duck appetizer, and I want to get back to try some desserts.


                                                1. re: spahkee

                                                  Before we create the appearance of some consensus that Ngon's rendition of the "street food" is poor, I'm going to reiterate that I really like their com tam with ginger glazed tofu and shitake mushrooms. And, I still like their pho, although, there are other phos in the universe I like better. And the fact that I can the com tam get it in the same meal, in St. Paul, in a lovely setting, with a great wine list, at reasonable (though not street food cheap) prices TOGETHER with other outstanding dishes like the duck confit and the ginger creme brulee is very appealing to me.

                                                  When you ask the question, why should I pay a couple of extra bucks for just the pho at Ngon Bistro when you can order it elsewhere? Maybe you shouldn't if pho is all you want. But, maybe you don't want to drive across town. Or maybe you want a glass of wine with dinner. Or, maybe you want to dine in a lovely, relaxed setting where they accept reservations. Or, maybe you want the fabulous creme brulee for dessert or the outstanding duck confit as an appetizer. There are a myriad of reasons.

                                                  I think there's enough room for all of these restaurants in the Twin Cities. I don't understand why we have to completely bury a restaurant and predict its demise just because someone else across the river has exceptional pho.

                                                  And while I could list out the number of times I've been to Vietnam or the number of people of Southeast Asian descent were dining with me, or how many other places I've eaten pho, I'm not going to because I don't think it's necessary to do so in order to have a valid opinion. You can be a chowhound and have educated, informed and valid opinions on a cuisine whether or not you grew up eating it. For the sake of combating groupthink, I will say, I personally don't eat pho for the noodles. The broth, yes. The beef, yes.

                                                  I like what I like.


                                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                    Argh! That's twice I've done that in this thread. I should not post until my coffee has kicked in. It'wasn't the com tam that was among my favorite dishes, but the bun tau hu (rice vermicelli with ginger glazed tofu, and fresh shitaki mushrooms) (#51).


                                                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                      I absolutely agree that the place *deserves* to thrive - there are a lot of things about the place that are completely lovely, and there is certainly room for it in the MSP dining scene.

                                                      There are just so many things on the menu there that seem so wonderful, and I dine out only a moderate amount, that I'm not sure if I'll get pho again, but I might.

                                                      I am not sure the street food issue will doom the place. There are lots of restaurants on other cuisines that serve street food, but dressed up, and they do fine. The location, though, might be the issue.

                                                      1. re: pgokey

                                                        i'll say again that if ngon was trying to serve americanized ethnic eats the restaurant would have opened in a stripmall somewhere. i think the location is a good one for this restaurant. it makes sense in that university is evolving into a different "eat street" with both higher end and lower end price points.

                                                        i've never had the pho at ngon. i have quang to get my pho fix, & i've always found other things to order at ngon that sounded better to me at the time. i did order the mi do bien in order to try the broth-- different from pho broth, and served with various seafood. it was unusually and intriguingly spiced, with a lot of dried shrimp, seaweed, & herbs added just before serving. i thought it was excellent. i assume that the pho broth is similarly spiced-- obviously a turnoff for traditionalists and intriguing for fusion food buffs. i do want to try ngon's take on pho, just haven't gotten to it yet. the discussion of best pho in msp or ngon's take on street food is neither here nor there. chefs are not zerox machines that need to slavishly reproduce canonized recipes--debatable whether these even really exist or not. they need to cook from their own experience.

                                                        1. re: soupkitten

                                                          If nothing else, perhaps the fine people who are running Ngon will have a chance to clarify their mission and menu a bit. It will probably do wonders to help them find their market and their market to visit them frequently.

                                                          My comments about the pho and com tam there were intended to be illustrative of a more simple fact than has been stretched out in this lively thread. First, when the expectation is created that the offerings at Ngon are a cut above, are a nuanced take on classics, or are 'fusion' or what have you, then I expect to find those treatments across the span of the menu.

                                                          My remarks on the caliber of the pho or com tam were intended to illustrate that in this vein, Ngon did not deliver on the promise of something different. It is simply no better than anything else offered elsewhere for less. Many dishes on their menu are lovely and different (with ample evidence offered earlier in this thread) and that is to their credit.

                                                          However, which personality from the kitchen will create customers in the marketplace for them? Too soon to tell I would guess, but my opinion of the matter stands. I don't think chef-driven restaurants of any description fare well when their menu and execution is a mixed bag between clever and artistic done well, and standard fare done only passably and at a premium. I see that as a big hurdle to overcome for the chef/owner. If the posts in this thread illustrate nothing else, it is that there is a wide range of expectations and opinions on how Ngon is handling itself.

                                                          My tactic of including the comments of my wife and our friend to enhance my own aren't made to shine my own apple. I can't possibly bring their emic knowledge of their indigenous cuisine to bear on my opinion of the food at Ngon like they can. My experience compared to theirs is vastly limited, but compared to most middle-aged American males my experience is vastly superior. I offer their opinions only to place mine in proper context.

                                                          1. re: soupkitten

                                                            I would not, and have not, characterized Ngon as "Americanized" - that word has an awfully specialized meaning coming from my tongue. I will let my previous posts speak for themselves.

                                                            But there are plenty of restaurants that offer more stylized interpretations of ethnic food that are found in locations much nicer than strip malls. I never intended to suggest Ngon is like those crappy Chinese places that serve "chow mein" in strip malls, which is what I see as Americanization. I think my posts pretty clearly suggest I see Ngon as something far different than that.

                                                            The specific example I used earlier for locations, in fact, was Uptown or I think I said downtown as well.

                                                            You're suggesting that Frogtown/East University might become an Eat Street in its own right, and then Ngon might be less out of place there (given it's "bistro-ness". Perhaps, and that would be fun to see - and the light rail line might help with that. As it is, it's pretty safe to say such a transition has not yet happened, and is probably a ways off. So for the time being, it's just not there yet, so for the time being, Ngon seems out of place there.

                                                            You haven't tried the pho? Given all of your comments about it, I thought you had.

                                                            1. re: pgokey

                                                              funny, huh. i was actually talking about the food in general. don't think i've ever specifically mentioned the pho as something i've eaten, though i have talked specifically about other dishes that i've had. my apparent misinterpretation about your position comes from this statement in your earlier post:

                                                              i took this and all the hubub about "authenticity" to mean that you interpreted ngon's food as "americanized" rather than as a menu in its own right.

                                                              i also think it's legit for people to open restaurants in their own neighborhood. i don't see any sense in ngon opening in edina, as you've previously suggested. the interest in food is not there, imo.

                                                              1. re: soupkitten

                                                                Americanization of food, sadly, is to dumb it down. Ngon is a bit more upscale than the average Vietnamese place (not talking food quality per se - think Lotus, Vina, etc.). Two different directions.

                                                                It's not true that the interest in food is not in Edina. The city has a lot of crappy chains in it, but that's because of Southdale. There are plenty of people who live in Edina - know lots of them - who are plenty serious about chow and will travel to get it. There are people in lots of communities that have crappy restaurants who love chow.

                                                                I am not at all suggesting that Frogtown doesn't deserve Ngon. I only said that it make more money in a different location. It came as a reaction to the query as to whether or not Ngon will survive. Others predicted it wouldn't because of pricing and quality, and I simply suggested location.

                                                                1. re: pgokey

                                                                  If you want to talk about style over substance, Mai Village is currently hitting much closer to that mark than Ngon. (And they seem to be doing pretty well.)

                                                                  In fact, I'd say that Ngon is doing the sorts of things that Mai Village should be. Put the Ngon food into Mai Village's space (or at least the space when it opened - it isn't aging very well) and you have a blockbuster.

                                                                  Even if the food is the same at Ngon is the same quality as say, Pho 79 or Saigon - the presentation is miles above, and the service is far more polished. Ngon is finding its niche - and the fact that it is bringing in people from outside the neighborhood is a very, very good thing for the community.

                                  2. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    I'm a hardcore pho seeker, as the DQ calls us. I ate it for the first time with a Vietnamese friend at Quang's in the very early 90s, back when Quang was just a little flyspecked dive in a strip mall. Since then, I've had pho in every restaurant that serves it (that I know of) in the Twin Cities. I had Ngon's for the first time this past week, the rib eye beef pho. My bowl was excellent--there is no way I would describe the broth as salty or tasteless, so I suspect consistency is indeed an issue. Mine had a deeper flavor than I'm used to in pho, and it was darker than usual. Maybe they cook the spices in the broth longer than do my other pho spots? The meat--and there was a good amount of it--was outstanding. Flavorful and tender. The basil was fresh, the bean sprouts crisp, and the lime sufficiently juicy. Service was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening, and I drank most of the broth in addition to polishing off the noodles. That said, next time I've gotta have a bowl of pho I'm more likely to head somewhere else. I think that has something to do with what HuaGung alluded to--when I want pho, part of what I want is the whole pho experience as I know it. I want good pho, cheap, and I want to eat it surrounded by a horde of other people eating the same thing in steamy, noisy surroundings. It's like a pastrami sandwich at Katz's; it's better in the crummy, never-changing surroundings of Katz's than it would be anywhere else. For me, at least. Sometime I'll think about why that's so--it's the power and lure of memory, don't you think?
                                    Regardless, I'll return to Ngon for more Summit ale, duck confit, and ginger cream brulee. And to try the other dishes you've all recommended on CH. And come to think of it I WILL get the pho at least one more time, because the server told me that the owner's father (or maybe grandfather...) comes in once or twice a week to make the meatballs by hand.

                              2. The chow-fiance and I went over the holidays while in town and were pretty disappointed. We got the pork lettuce wraps, which were excellent. Nicely marinated, tender and tasty. We also had the sweet potato and shrimp fritters, which I thought tasted like a whole lot of nothing. The batter seemed to muffle the taste so it all tasted like...batter. For entrees, we had the fish special, which was poached fish on a sweet, spiced rice. Again, the fish was fairly bland and did not mix terribly well with the rice. We shared the broken rice with pork, which featured a hell of a lot of rice, and some bland pork. We also got the chicken bun dish. I appreciate the fact that the vegetables are locally sourced, but I could have done with a lot more chicken and a lot less organic arugula. The ratio of vermicelli and arugula to chicken was a little pitiful.
                                We left quite disappointed. None of the flavors wowed, or even complemented each other terribly. We had gone to Quang the night before for some absolutely divine pho, and it hit my Vietnamese fix with far more interesting flavors. I do applaud the effort at Ngon, but would like to see brighter, more complex flavors.