A blue neon sign astutely states “Lau De” in the window of Ben Thanh, tucked in the armpit of the MLK/Rainier intersection. Literally, this area, with beautiful, imposing and classic Franklin High School to one side and the, bright, modern light rail to the other, looks like a forlorn place. But if you know that ‘Lau De’ of which the sign speaks, you look a little closer. Traditional Vietnamese goat hot pot, to a person like me, anyway, holds much intrigue.
I first came to Ben Thanh in search of a quick meal, low expectations, on a time limit, it was there. While I was vaguely aware that ‘lau’ meant hot pot, it somehow didn’t make much of a connection in my head and I was quickly distracted by the “Bun Cha Ha Noi” listed on a piece of paper under the glass on my table. The TV played sports, quietly in the background, and Vietnamese families slurped noodles. Noodles from giant bowls, over flames.
Our server was as kind as could be, and when we asked questions about all these mysterious dishes not actually listed on the already large menu, he had patience and courtesy and talked us through all of them. Never once did I hear the condescension of “You won’t like that,” but rather an excitement of our interest in their food “Do you speak Vietnamese?” he asked us at first. Flattered, we laughed. No, we just love the food. That first night we were steered toward what was called a “Thai Hot Pot,” but which, despite the name, matched the steamy, broad flavors that we had enjoyed while slurping down hot pot at street beer stands in Hanoi.
The thing about great Vietnamese food in Vietnam is the impressive flavor that is derived from the incredible freshness of ingredients. That snap when you bit into a piece of basil, the meat that was killed that day. To do such exact replicas in Seattle would be near impossible. Ben Thanh did not do that. But they did a darn good impression. And the friendly attitude of the waiter and his joy at watching us enjoy and discuss the food were precisely as we encountered in Vietnam.
Returning for our second visit we knew we had to try their specialty, the goat hot pot of blue neon fame. The waiter remembered us, remembered our love of spicy food. I was impressed as he managed to make sure we knew what we were doing with the hot pot without insinuating we didn’t know what we were doing–we didn’t. He described to us how they roll the meat in an herb paste to keep out any ‘grassy’ flavor in the meat, then described his own preferred method of eating the enormous pile of Vietnamese herbs, plate of crimped egg noodles and murky broth studded with chunks of all sorts of goat parts. Digging in this soup wasn’t for the queasy. Each piece tasted differently, ranging from pork belly-esque to “that was definitely some type of offal.”
Unassuming as it is, Ben Thanh doesn’t seem to have aspirations to be the next Green Leaf or Tamarind Tree. They don’t seem to be out to impress–the poorly blown up photos as the only wall decor, depicting rural Vietnam attest to that. Yet they seem to have that one quality inherent in great family-run restaurants: a love of serving great food. Nothing attests to that more than watching the patriarch sit down at the table next to us with a mountain of his own restaurants food while his son worriedly asks us how everything is.