Vietnamese Spice in Richmond, VA

I’m in Richmond for a wedding, so I immediately do a Happy Cow search of the area for vegan food. One restaurant looks particularly interesting – Phoenix Garden, a Vietnamese noodle house. It has many positive ratings. I’ve never had Vietnamese food before, so I head on over.

It’s late afternoon on a Saturday, and I’m the only car in the parking lot. I tentatively walk in, expecting the place to be closed until dinner. It’s a huge restaurant with a bar at the back where one customer is sitting, waiting for take out. Otherwise, it’s completely empty.

A very happy older woman emerges from the back to welcome me. They have several imported beer options. I order a Tsingtao—she seems impressed that I pronounce it correctly (or, you know, as correctly as I can muster)—and a few seconds later an older man brings me the beer with a giant smile on his face.

Phoenix Garden is entirely vegan, and I’m overwhelmed with choices. I settle on the spicy eggplant and tofu dish. It comes quickly and again with a giant smile. There is a bowl of soup with the tofu/eggplant dish and rice, and I’m not really sure what to do with it. It’s a thin ginger broth with onions, cilantro, and lemon. It tastes good, but I’m confused. The tofu/eggplant dish is incredibly spicy—just the way I like it, though perhaps not for everyone—and flavored with scallions, baby corn, and cilantro. I end up alternating the dish with the soup, and I think that’s the intention as the ginger and lemon seem to recharge my taste buds after the spicy food. It’s a wonderful combination. As I eat, I start posting to Facebook about what an exciting find this restaurant is. The food is layered with different flavors, the heat and acidity melding into one another. My only complaint is the number of carrots in the dish—I’m just not a fan of the squirrely little orange vegetable. Next time I’ll ask them to hold the offending item.

The older woman—one of the owners—comes over to my table, and we talk a bit about how great the food is. She notes the out-of-state plates on my car, so I explain I’m there for a wedding. When she finds out I’m single, she starts telling me about her son who lives in New York City, what a nice boy he is but he’s single, too… She’s very sweet and it’s great talking to her, but I’m sure her son would be mortified to learn his mom is trying to set him up with random strangers.

When I’m ready to leave, she and her husband both come out to thank me for coming and to wish me well on my drive back home. They are incredibly genuine people, so happy I liked the food and so excited that an out-of-towner had heard of them.

I notice later that many reviewers have commented on how few customers Phoenix Garden seems to have, and it’s a bit distressing. When I’m passing through Richmond again many months later, I ask my now-married friend to meet me there for lunch. He is a local, but has never heard of the place. When we get there, only one other table is taken. Again, the owners greet us with such pleased looks that we can’t help but smile ourselves. The food is still wonderful, and I think I drafted my friend onto the pro-Phoenix Garden team. But I do hope others start going there; it would be a shame if such a great place didn’t make it. If you’re ever on the Eastern Seaboard, make a special trip to Phoenix Garden. You won’t regret it.

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