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Originally published Friday, March 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant review

Thoa's offers personal twist to Vietnamese favorites

Restaurant Review: Thoa's Restaurant & Lounge, owned and operated in downtown Seattle by the Saigon-born Thoa Nguyen, features alluring summer rolls and impeccable fried nibbles, vibrant soups and noodle salads, as well as a variety of wok-cooked entrees that are fresh-tasting and deftly prepared; reviewed by Providence Cicero.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Canh Chua Tom soup with shrimp $7
Seared tuna lotus salad $14
Braised pork Thit Kho $13
Salmon with mango curry butter sauce $18
Vietnamese steak frites $20

Thoa's Restaurant & Lounge2.5 stars

Vietnamese

96 Union St., Seattle

206-344-8088, www.thoaseattle.com

Reservations: Accepted.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner, 4-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and 4-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; noon-10 p.m. Saturdays and 3-9 p.m. Sundays; and happy hour 4-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and 3-9 p.m. Sundays.

Prices: $$ (lunch appetizers $7-$12, entrees $8-$14; dinner appetizers $7-$12, entrees $12-$26)

Drinks: Full bar, beer, wine, sake.

Parking: On street or in nearby garages.

Sound: Moderate.

Who should go: The cocktail crowd will love this comfortable lounge as much as the drinks; ideal for an inexpensive preconcert or post-museum meal; large groups easily accommodated.

Credit cards: All major cards.

Access: No obstacles.

The tanned couple who settled into cushioned rattan seats amid the paper lanterns and palm fronds in the lounge at Thoa's looked like they were right off the boat — one that had just returned from a Mexican cruise. "Didn't this used to be an Italian place?" they asked the server, who on this quiet night was also the bartender.

A sense of déjà vu haunts this multilevel space perched at the western edge of Union Street above the waterfront. Beneath the exotic Indochine décor lies the pentimenti of its predecessors, which have included a couple of Italian places — LeoMelina and 96 Union — and way before those, Robert Rosellini's The Other Place.

For the past five years the Polynesian-themed Islander thrived here, until November when the restaurant became Thoa's (pronounced TWAZ), a change of name, but not ownership. Chef/restaurateur Thoa Nguyen launched The Islander in 2003, after establishing a successful string of pan-Asian Chinoise Cafés. A trip to her native Vietnam in 2007 — her first since the family fled Saigon in 1975 when she was 11 — inspired Nguyen to create her first Vietnamese restaurant and put her name above the door.

The menu reflects her personal interpretation of the cuisine of her motherland. It features alluring summer rolls (including one stuffed with soft-shell crab) and impeccable fried nibbles, vibrant soups and noodle salads, as well as a variety of wok-cooked specialties. Everything is fresh tasting and deftly prepared; I wish the service was as consistent. Still, if my family lived in the neighborhood, we'd eat here once a week.

My 13-year-old would insist we start with pot stickers or buttermilk-battered fried calamari fragrant with five-spice powder. I would begin with Canh Chua Tom, a stunning sweet-and-sour soup thick with shrimp, bean sprouts, tomato, pineapple and tart chunks of pale Asian rhubarb, in a tamarind broth aromatic with herbs, among them cilantro, basil and citrusy ngo om.

Hubby would lobby (and I wouldn't argue) for yam fries with chipotle aioli; or fried ribbons of squid steak swathed in fiery sambal sauce; or crackling Imperial Rolls, best enjoyed wrapped in lettuce with pickled daikon, carrot, cilantro and basil.

Thoa's offers several varieties of cold-noodle salad bowls, but my favorite salad is composed of seared tuna and a dazzling slaw combining crisp slivers of lotus stem, cucumber and cabbage with cilantro and peppery green rau ram, a Southeast Asian herb often called Vietnamese coriander. An invigorating lime-and-chili vinaigrette saturates the slaw; more is provided for dipping the thin ruby slices of excellent tuna.

The kitchen uses spicy heat with discipline — sometimes too much discipline. Wok-fried prawns and scallops billed as "spicy" weren't. Crispy fried tofu with broccoli, however, had a garlicky sauce with plenty of zing, as did gingery sautéed eggplant with bamboo shoots and bell pepper. Mango-curry sauce brushed on grilled Alaskan sockeye mixed heat and sweet in equal, yet subtle, degrees.

Meat-and-potato types should try steak frites Vietnamese-style. The shoestring fries are tossed with the tender bites of rare beef, scallion and bell pepper. Somehow they soak up the sauce without getting soggy. The result is improbably good.

So are succulent grilled Ha Noi pork chops and Thit Kho, slices of braised pork shoulder simmered in a heady combination of fish sauce and soy sauce, thick with minced garlic and shallots. It's served with rice, a hard-cooked egg steeped in the braising liquid and sautéed watercress whose bitter bite counterbalances all that richness.

Thoa's lunch and dinner menus are virtually the same, but lunch is even more affordable. During happy hour, which stretches until 7 p.m., top-shelf cocktails are discounted and the house white wine — a light, fruity Washington Hills chardonnay that partners very well with Asian flavors — is a mere $12.

For dessert, my family swears allegiance to the mud pie. One day I'll convince them to try cassava cake. That dense confection, made from grated cassava root, has a texture like marzipan. Even soaked in mango syrup and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it's a hard sell against a mountain of Kona coffee ice cream, fudge and crushed Oreo cookies ringed with a cloud of whipped cream.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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