November 10, 2014 update: Bonjour Vietnam has been renamed “Rice Paper.” The menu has changed slightly, but most dishes mentioned below are still available.
Live somewhere long enough, and it becomes easy to identify a city’s “cursed locations.” These are sites where restaurant after restaurant fails, sometimes for no discernible reason. There’s a space in the ground floor of the San Carlos Hotel in Downtown Phoenix that has long been one of those places, with tenants either failing within a few months of opening or never opening at all despite ambitious coming-soon announcements. The latest occupant is Bonjour Vietnam, and, amazingly, it has endured more than a year, an eternity compared to some of its predecessors.
As its name suggests, Bonjour Vietnam serves Vietnamese food, which means the restaurant is also trying to defy a second curse: the challenge for Vietnamese restaurants to survive in the area’s urban centers. While countless places devoted to pho thrive in suburban strip malls, both Downtown Phoenix and Tempe’s Mill Avenue have recently been home to Vietnamese eateries that closed after less than a year. Bonjour Vietnam seems to be dealing with that challenge by embracing the first word of its name and tempering its menu with some French influences.
The location has many positives despite its history of failed restaurants. The building is historic, and Bonjour Vietnam’s space within the hotel is a highly visible corner spot where Monroe meets Central Avenue. A shaded patio wraps around the restaurant, addressing both thoroughfares and providing a view of Downtown life. The Van Buren light rail stations (one for westbound trains on Central and another for eastbound trains on First Avenue) are just a block away, and many of the nearby parking meters have been updated with metal loops suitable for bike lock-up.
The interior is tiny with only with less than a dozen closely packed tables and a small L-shaped bar. This is a small restaurant within a small hotel, but the menu offers a sizeable number of choices drawing from a mix on southeast Asian and French traditions. Among the starters, the egg rolls, or cha gio, are the item most familiar from Vietnamese menus around town. The default filling is seasoned, ground pork, but vegetarian and shrimp options are also available with the same crisp wrappers and the same accompanying platter of fresh lettuce and herbs.
While the egg rolls stay close to the Vietnamese restaurant template, the coi guon, sometimes known as summer rolls, branch out more. The traditional version includes a mix of lean pork and shrimp with a peanut-based dipping sauce. That’s not a surprise. The zen rolls use a vegetarian filling of firm tofu and chewy, earth shitakie mushrooms. More innovative choices swap the peanut sauce for a miso ginger condiment and fill the rice paper with seafood fillings: seared ahi tuna, shrimp tempura, or soft-shell crab, all of them mellowed with fresh mango and avocado.
The citronelle edamame are the usual boiled soybean pods coated in a spicy sauce that results in a messy but addictive finger food. In comparison to the meatless simplicity of the edamame, the bo la nho are a meaty treat featuring minced beef encased in grape leaves. Peanuts and fried shallots, a common garnish in Vietnamese cooking, add another layer of flavor. French influence becomes apparent in Bonjour Vietnam’s onion soup. The presentation seems classic at first but is given a unique twist with the inclusion of bits of meat and quail egg within the broth.
While the onion soup is sold as a starter, the much larger bowls of pho are among the most popular entrees. Bonjour Vietnam makes a half dozen variants of the familiar bowl of noodles, all with a broth of medium intensity — not the weakest around, but definitely not the strongest. The pho tai, with sliced rare beef, is the most familiar. Dac biet adds a variety of beef cuts, and pho with filet is best for anyone who prefers well-done meat. Shrimp and chicken soups are slightly lighter tastes, and the buddha pho it a meatless bowl full of tofu, shiitakes, and vegetables.
Banh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches, are served here on crusty baguettes with grilled or braised pork, chicken, or a meatless mix of tofu and mushrooms. At $8 for each sandwich, the price is noticeably higher than at strip mall Vietnamese restaurants, but these come with the added value of a side dish — a mixed green salad, garlicky French fries, or sweet potato fries — included on the plate. For variety and value, the lunch box, a sort of French-Vietnamese bento, offers a a choices of meat or stir-fried vegetables with a side salad, steamed rice, and a spring roll.
There are also entree salads such as a simple combination of smoked salmon and greens, carrots, avocado, and mango. Less successful is the bun salad, an interpretation of the noodle dishes found on so many Vietnamese menus. The uncommonly high ratio of lettuce to noodles is forgivable, but the undercooked bun makes this dish the rare glitch on Bonjour Vietnam’s menu. Evening dishes such as sizzling salmon or a half Cornish hen are nicely flavored, although the promised “seasonal vegetables” were only a few planks of zucchini when sampled.
Stick to the all-day favorites for the best experience and augment evening visits with one of the craft beers on tap or a glass of wine from the small bar. To finish a meal, Bonjour Vietnam offers only one dessert each day, and it’s usually something eminently shareable such as two scoops of ice cream topped with nutella-filled wontons, a little bit of Asian-influenced creativity. While Bonjour Vietnam hasn’t been around all that long, it has survived long enough to give hope that the twin curses of its location and Vietnamese food Downtown can be eventually be broken.
202 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Van Buren / Central (westbound) and Van Buren / 1st Avenue (eastbound) stations