Of the many Vietnamese, Laotian, and Thai restaurants in Madison, Ha Long Bay certainly holds the trophy for the tastiest and sunniest. Combining all three cuisines, the Asian bistro boasts an expansive 10-page menu—much too large and quite overwhelming, in my opinion, though it offers options for very differing tastes, from tofu spring rolls to pho (beef soup) to vegetable and pork fried rice to “drunken” wide flour noodles. An entire menu page is dedicated to vegetarian dishes, though the rest of the menu features a substantial amount of vegan-friendly dishes (they will gladly veganize a dish, such as omitting the egg in fried rice or leaving the fish sauce on the side).
Like most of my other Ha Long Bay excursions, I patronized the lime green-curtained restaurant for lunch with my good friend and fellow vegan Lisa, who undoubtedly could keep the business open single-handedly based on how often she eats there (can you say more than twice a week?). Lisa swears by three dishes at Ha Long Bay: the Yum Tofu salad, the mango curry, and the vegetable spring rolls, which are, most likely not coincidentally, the three plates we ordered this Saturday. While we both ordered a plate of spring rolls, I opted for the Yum Tofu salad in an attempt to avoid nutritionless white rice or white flour noodles as much as possible, while Lisa treated herself to the extremely rich, extremely filling, and extremely delicious mango curry with tofu.
Each order of spring rolls comes with two generously-sized rice-paper wrappers stuffed chock-full of tofu, rice vermicelli noodles, lettuce, bean sprouts, mint, and cilantro with a sweet dipping sauce of crushed peanuts. The rolls are light yet suprisingly satisfying, especially mixed with the peanuts, though I’m certain the sauce contains sugar, which does make me cringe a bit. However, I eat white sugar only when it is well-hidden in Asian restaurant dishes and it is such a rare occasion that I’ll let the processed sweetness slide once in a blue moon. I apologize profusely for not snapping a photo of the spring rolls, but Lisa and I were absolutely ravenous by the time our food arrived from snailing through construction traffic and arriving for a late lunch, so I completely forgot.
While the service does make you wait just a tad longer than your stomach would prefer for appetizers, the waiters reliably serve the entrees almost immediately after you’ve cleared your spring roll, dumpling, or wonton plate.
I ordered my Yum Tofu Salad with medium spiciness, which turned out to pack just the right amount of punch for my ever-becoming-accustomed-to-hot-foods taste buds. Served on a giant lettuce leaf and mixed with cilantro, lime juice, and chili paste sits a colorful, refreshing medly of firm tofu, crunchy cucumbers, slurpy bean thread noodles, and disappointingly pale tomatoes which left much to be desired by their insipid texture and taste (why do all the restaurants I eat at lately feature the same flavorless tomatoes? Sunprint Cafe, anyone?), though the rest of the salad’s summery sweetness with a slight kick shined through. The spring rolls and salad constituted a light, refreshing hot-weather meal…though perhaps a bit too light, for I snuck a couple of mango curry bites from Lisa who “couldn’t possibly take another bite or I might explode,” she says while reaching with her fork for another slice of onion.
The mango curry combines mango (who knew?), pineapple, potato, acorn squash, and onion with a creamy, intensely rich red curry sauce of coconut milk and peanuts. Thank goodness I only took a few bites or I may have died from a curry-induced coma (how Lisa ate half of it plus rice, I’ll never know. Champion eater, that tiny girl.), though those nibbles certainly tasted positively divine.
While my list of regular restaurant does not feature Ha Long Bay thanks to its lack of whole grains and use of white sugar and constantly-lurking fish sauce, my meals never fail to pack huge flavor punches whenever I splurge at this quaint Asian bistro. In addition to all three Saturday lunch dishes, I also recommend the Suki-num soup for colder months as well as the Drunken Noodles.
Until next time, Ali.