I’ve only gone to Van’s once before to eat in, and once before to get some take out for Albany John’s birthday. All that was at their old location in the converted house downtown. I like the kitchy atmosphere – how it remained romantic, upscale and very, very personal. It was also one of the most interesting set ups I’ve seen in a restaurant since certain parts were raised, others were lowered and tables were in some pretty spiffy spots. However, parking was the biggest bitch this side of the Mississipi (hyperbole here, people!). Oh sure, they had that parking lot that fit about, oh three cars and then you’d have to drive all around the not-so-nicest part of downtown Albany, NY looking for some place within a decent walking distance.
So last year Van’s up and moved. Actually, it kind of seems like they traded spaces with another Vietnamese place which is located in Van’s old location. But Van’s decided to go over to Central Ave (across from that hardware store). Still not the greatest location in the world, but parking is so much better. Also, it helps with the thought that Central Ave is getting better, which, arguably just might be.
I was game for a new place for lunch. As soon as I walked in, woah, this new place is really open. Just a big ol’ square/rectangular shape and when you first walk in, the first thing you see is the really gorgeous bar. It’s a really huge space with just under twenty tables. The new large space doesn’t feel as cozy as the former location, but it’s really well decorated and moderately welcoming in a still fancy way. I also noticed they serve plum wine – yay!
So I put in the order for summer rolls($4.95) with shrimp and pepper seared salmon($9.95) with shrimp chutney. Woah! Chutney?! OF SHRIMP?! YES! Hells frickin yes! It took about 10 or so minutes to whip up. Van (the chef/owner/namesake) also came out of the back to get the order. And some water. He’s never really that personal, but hell, when you cook to perfection like he does you could be a total jerkoff to me and I’d still keep coming back. I’ll admit I’m also slightly socially awkward around chefs I know cook it up right. Also, he’s got this awesome little tuft of hair coming out of one side of his chin. Not centered mind you, but a little plug of facial hair on the left side of his chin. WOAH! How much more Viet can you get?! That’s how authentic Van’s is!
The shrimp summer rolls were okay. They had noodles, shrimp, lettuce and mint wrapped in the thin unfried/cooked rice wrappers. I got 4 pieces (this could be a good lunch in itself) of rolls and some nuoc cham-ish dipping sauce. Nuoc cham is the fermented fish oil. It’s like Vietnamese soy sauce. I’d never tried them before and they keep popping up on the blogosphere, and I didn’t want to be left out of something tasty. Unfortunately, I didn’t really find these to be that tasty. Neither did Albany John. I don’t think they’re done badly, I just don’t like mint, or the texture of the rice wrapper (kind of gummy). We both found the mint to be over powering for our palates (Albany John swears they used the wrong kind of mint, possibly lemon mint, I say it was regular ol’ mint and just way too over powering) and it did taste a little better after I tried to pick all the mint out. Seriously, it tasted REALLY minty. Like a minty tree was stuck in there and it’s all you could taste. I’m not a fan of woody overtones in my food.
The salmon, however, was great. It came with rice and veggies. The veggies had some sweet sauce over them, which I spilled out of the container driving home, but thankfully everything was in a non-leaking bag. Phew, car interior saved. Albany John thought the veggies were over cooked, but I thought they tasted devine with that sweet sauce coating them (what IS it? I’ll eat all my servings of veggies every day if I can get that sweet sauce over them). The sweet sauce wasn’t heavy or anything though – just a sweet little liquid. The salmon was cooked to a medium perfection. Fish is a huge problem in this area. Most places will overcook the salmon past medium. I personally would perfer my fish to be cooked rare to medium-rare at most, but I’ve found if you find a place that does medium, oh man are you in luck. The center was still moist and supple, and the skin on the salmon was a little piece of peppery heaven. Albany John opted to remove the shrimp chutney, which was also heavily flavored and tasty. I always think people over cook most shrimp, or these shrimp were pre-cooked and de-frosted and thrown with seasonings. I thought they would be disappointing, but definitely were not. They did taste better separately from the salmon, so you could taste both fishy goodnesses.
I’d say not enough people check out Van’s for lunch. There were only 2 ladies in ordering pho and salad when I went in, and their lunch prices are definitely affordable. Think about how much people spend when they go out for a crappy lunch from McDonald’s and spend about six dollars. For ten dollars you can have this gourmet feast. Also, I prefer to get lunch take out from these more upscale places because it’s significantly cheaper and allows me to try something new on the relatively cheap.
Also note, they take visa and mastercard, but only on orders over $15.00 and debit on orders above $8(not too sure on the debit one).