In diverse communities like Tempe, it’s not uncommon to have restaurants and grocers of entirely different geographic origins coexisting side-by-side in the same shopping center. Khai Hoan, a small Vietnamese restaurant, occupies a small retail plaza with a Mexican carniceria and a Middle Eastern restaurant as its neighbors. The location on the south side of Apache Boulevard is a quarter mile east of the Apache/Dorsey light rail station and Tempe Streetcar stop.
Khai Hoan is hidden in the corner of a strip mall on the south side of Apache. The small dining room, attractively decorated but still sparse, is tightly packed with two-tops on one side, four-tops on the other, and tables for larger groups in the middle. There are a few seats on a small patio, but those are a waiting area rather than an extension of the dining room. One of the chairs is often occupied by a gentleman sipping cafe sua da, Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. The railing at the end of the patio can serve as an improvised bike rack.
Despite the minimalist setting and decor, the restaurant draws a steady crowd, particularly at lunch. It is not uncommon at peak times to be asked to share one of the large tables with another party. Don’t be shy; the long, communal tables are half the fun of a meal at Khai Hoan. In fact, sometimes tablemates are the best sources of recommendations about which dishes to order. Expect a diverse crowd of ASU students, workers from nearby offices, and families with kids. The atmosphere is so casual and unpretentious that it would be hard to feel unwelcome.
Among the starters, it’s the rolls that seem most popular. Cold goi cuon rolls are available in three varieties: a standard version with whole shrimp and julienne pork, a version with just beef or shrimp, and a meatless version with strips of tofu inside. The egg rolls, or cha gio, are served fresh from the fryer, nice and hot with a crisp exterior and a ground meat filling. With all types of rolls, expect a huge plate full of lettuce leaves, sprigs of fresh herbs, slices of pickled vegetables, and a bowl of nuoc cham, a sweet, clear, lightly colored fish sauce, for dipping.
When it comes time to choose a main course, a quick glance around the restaurant will show two trends: First, almost none of the customers order the American Chinese food listed on the menu. There’s nothing wrong with it, but kung pao shrimp is probably on the menu mostly to comfort the timid eater who might be the veto vote in a group of friends or coworkers dining out. Second, the majority of customers order pho, the celebrated rice noodle soup of Hanoi, served steaming in big bowls. accompanied by equally generous plates full of fresh garnishes.
Among the ten varieties of pho listed on the menu, all hit the nose first with their aromas of star anise and cinnamon. There are numerous beef versions offered, ranging from the basic model with sliced beef — rare, well-done, or both — to more formidable choices with tendon and tripe. Chicken pho is also available, as is a meatless (although not vegetarian) pho loaded with vegetables and tofu. The seafood version contains plenty of shrimp, but be warned the “crab meat” in the description is really the white-and-red streaked imitation product.
Crab lovers can find the real deal, however, in bun rieu, a specialty soup of shrimp and ground crab meat in a broth with tomato. Shrimp appear on the menu not only in their whole form, but also minced and shaped into balls that are then sliced and placed atop bun dishes featuring thin rice vermicelli noodles in a dry form with shallots, peanuts, and scallions. It’s all served over a bed of lettuce with fish sauce on the side. Com tam dishes take the same approach, but substitute broken grains of rice for noodles as the main carbohydrate in the dish.
Beyond the familiar bun dishes of rice vermicelli, Khai Hoan offers two less commonly encountered varieties of dry noodle entrees. The banh hoi dishes are formatted similarly to bun but prepared with bundles of miniature rice sticks. Bahn cuon are a completely different shape altogether. They’re small, soft rice crepes (as opposed to the gigantic bahn xeo crepe served as an appetizer) that can be stuffed inside big sheets of lettuce with the various garnishes provided alongside each noodle dish here. A dip in nuoc chom is usually the final step.
About the only item that fans of Vietnamese food are likely to miss at Khai Hoan is bahn mi, a type of sandwich that pairs Vietnamese flavors with crusty baguettes reflecting the French colonial influence in southeast Asia. No alcohol is served, but the house-made lemonade, with or without club soda, and the fresh-squeezed orange juice are equally effective at quenching thirst and extinguishing heat. There’s little in the way of dessert, but it’s easy to walk to the other end of the building to purchase one of the myriad varieties of baklava available at Haji-Baba.
Khai Hoan is a bargain, with nothing on the menu priced at more than $11 and is open every day except Sunday. The restaurant adds to the culinary diversity of this portion of the light rail corridor and stays comfortably within the street’s economical price range and casual feel. It’s also among the assets that make the Hudson Manor neighborhood of Tempe, located just south of the restaurant, attractive. Between meals of shawarma and carne asada from the diverse cuisines found nearby, Khai Hoan makes its own contribution on Apache Boulevard.
1537 E Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281