by Alice Levitt
242 N. Winooski Ave., Burlington, 865-0226
It's been almost two years since 99 Asian Market added "Eatery" to its name, set up some simple seating and expanded its menu beyond made-to-order banh mi and a hot bar.
I've eaten there plenty of times since, but for some reason, I've never shared the love on this blog. Perhaps I wanted to keep the secret to myself.
I usually order the same thing; the grilled pork bun (noodle salad) and an order of egg rolls are all I need. But while those are both excellent, they're not what make 99 special.
The real reason to go there, rather than any of the seven other Vietnamese spots in Chittenden County, is that 99 has dishes you're unlikely to see elsewhere. And since it's also a sprawling market, there's plenty of choice when it comes to drinks, desserts and condiments. And, when you're done, you can take home a whole duck and try your hand at making your own Vietnamese cuisine.
Often, that wide selection means I spend an embarrassing amount of time in front of the row of drink coolers before I choose a can of textured aloe or basil-seed drink.
But last Sunday, only bubble tea would do. Specifically, a taro-flavored slush. There are 16 other flavors, including everything from green bean to almond, but I'm a taro girl. The subdued purple drink might not be the most flavorful option, but it makes me happy.
The 99 version wasn't as polished as some I've had. Large chunks of ice broke up the texture. Instead of tapioca balls, rainbow jelly made a somewhat sparse appearance. My dining partner asked for a coconut smoothie: no ice, no bubbles. As you can see, he got a slush anyway.
Things improved with the arrival of my salad — or perhaps, more accurately, ceviche. That's right, the Vietnamese know just as well as Latin chefs that a citrus cure cooks protein.
A pile of thinly sliced, raw beef was lightly cooked with a liberal shower of lime. The acid combined beautifully with peanuts and dank fish sauce in the tangle of beef, carrots and daikon. Cucumbers and lettuce were refreshing beneath them.
99 boasts six varieties of pho, as well as even more special soups rarely seen in Vermont. Noodle-filled Vietnamese beef stew was surrounded by a forcefield of fragrant cinnamon. The thin broth was aromatic, a French influence evident in the soup's combination of tender, if fatty, stewed beef and carefully scalloped carrot chunks.
That was good, but it couldn't compare with the Bún bò Huế, (below right). Native to the former imperial city of Huế, this lemongrass-flavored soup is considered a holdover from Vietnamese royal cuisine.
The broth was delicious — comforting and energizing at once — but it was the drizzles of bright-red chile oil that made it truly special. My lips tingled as I took cooling bites of fresh cilantro and basil along with spoonfuls of the soup.
Chunks of tender pork roll soaked up the flavor, along with thick, chewy, round noodles that remained dead white even in the colorful broth. The one negative was my own hang-up: I will never have an easy time with beef striped with crunchy connective tissue and gristle. It's just not my thing, authentic or not.
And that's the beauty of 99 Asian Market Eatery. Like it or not, you're getting your meal just as owner Niem Duong learned to cook it back in Vietnam. And chances are, it will be delicious.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to email@example.com.