Minh Hoa Restaurant & Cajun Seafood: Vietnam in the Heartland

It’s always a treat to find good Asian food where you don’t quite expect it.

Recently, that unexpected place for me was Wichita, Kansas, where yes, I’d thought I’d find terrific steaks but Vietnamese? Never crossed my mind.

Now, no matter where I’ve been, be it little Strasburg, Virginia, or Boring, Oregon (yes, there is such a town and yes, I have been there), I expect to find decent Chinese food. (I’ve learned that any place in the U.S. tends to have a Chinese family hard at work somewhere churning out OK versions of General Tso’s chicken and kung pao beef.)

Any other kinds of Asian food, however, is a different matter. So I was pleasantly surprised to come across a restaurant in Wichita that served up not just Vietnamese — but good and less usual Vietnamese dishes.

You can read my full report on Minh Hoa Restaurant & Cajun Seafood in this weekend’s New York Times Travel section. But if you want to see more visuals, carry on reading here…

Minh Hoa is fairly new — it opened in May and as its name suggests, sells both Cajun and Vietnamese dishes.

Co-owner Sarah Vo, who spent 10 years operating a nail salon in El Dorado, Kansas, before opening this restaurant, said she had initially planned to serve just Cajun food but customers started clamoring for more Vietnamese dishes.

The place has an intriguing ambience — you’ll have to read the Times story for that. But the very chirpy and friendly Sarah, who filled our table with chatter each time she brought out a dish, lends the place a delightful warmth.

Among the cajun offerings, our fried catfish, oyster and shrimp platter was nicely done — the coating wasn’t too thick; the items came hot and crispy.

The crayfish — the restaurant’s bestseller — was lip-numbingly spicy and delicious. (If you like things fiery, Sarah will bring out a little dish of an even spicier version of the crayfish sauce for dipping.)

I had been skeptical of how well the Asian dishes would be executed but the shrimp fried rice immediately allayed my fears.

Not only was this flavorful and perfectly fried — it had the key element that elevates any fried rice from good to great: wok hei or char from the wok. Wok hei is the essential element to much of Chinese stir-frying — and it’s especially important with fried rice. If I don’t detect that ever-so-slightly singed taste in this dish, I’m always disappointed. Minh Hoa does this perfectly.

As you might have gathered on this blog, I’m a little fussy about my pho.

Minh Hoa’s comes packed with tripe, slivers of beef and beef balls — which is all fine and good. The broth, for me, is always what makes this dish, and it was not bad here. A little sweeter than I usually like but aromatic and delicious nonetheless.

Sarah highly recommended the next two dishes, which she clearly has a nostalgia for since they were popular in Danang, where she was born.

The bun mam, she warned, was not for the less daring — and I could see what she meant the moment the bowl hit our table. This seafood and pork noodle dish comes in a broth so loaded with fish sauce you can smell it long before a spoonful of it hits your mouth.

I’d recommend it, however — it’s really quite tasty.

The mi quang, however, ended up being my favorite. This noodle dish came with a side playe of shredded vegetables …

… which Sarah suggested dumping into the bowl and mixing everything up.

The flavors in this dish are unforgettable — first, the gravy is filled with turmeric, just about my favorite spice. Next, it’s packed with pork belly, shrimp, roasted peanuts, cilantro, crispy fried onions and crunch shrimp crackers — a seriously good combination that pretty much ensures a taste bomb in your mouth in each bite.

Sarah says the Vietnamese side of her menu is evolving, as she continues to add dishes that come to mind and that her husband, the cook, can perfect.

It may be a while before I’m back in Wichita again — but I already can’t wait to see what new dishes Minh Hoa cooks up next.

Minh Hoa Restaurant & Cajun Seafood, 1556 North Broadway, Wichita, Kan.; 316.351.7637.

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