Friday, March 07, 2008

Dish on Dining: Rang Dong

Vietnamese cuisine that’s hard to pin down
724 Webster St. (at 8th Street), Oakland
PH: 510.835.8375
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Since I started this blog, I spend a lot of time visiting food discussion groups just to see what the food buzz may be in the Bay Area. Awhile back I read someone claiming Rang Dong to be the best Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland. Now, I know reviews on the Web can get a bit superfluous (been to Yelp lately?), but this is just a downright challenge in my mind.

Luckily for me, Rang Dong is in Oakland’s Chinatown, which is a good walk from my office on a nice sunny day. So in the last few weeks, I’ve visited this typical Vietnamese restaurant (with its recently renovated windows) for lunch.

Rang Dong is larger and cleaner than most of the smaller pho joints in town, which probably gives it an automatic one star to start in most people’s eyes. It definitely can handle the large office party, like on one visit when it looked like an office group was having a special lunch.

The menu also offers more options than popular pho spots like Pho Hoa Lao II just two blocks up the street. But despite being bigger and offering a variety of dishes, Rang Dong never seemed extremely busy on the times I’ve been there compared to other places.

The service is very friendly and attentive. They’ll be sure to bring you a fork if it looks like you’re struggling or your check when you look like you’re ready to get back to the office.

On my first visit, I ordered the Bun Bo Hue ($6.90, note: while a pho noodle dish, it’s listed under the house specials). This is one of my favorite beef pho soup bowls because it’s spicier and comes with a large assortment of animal parts.

When the order arrived, it was a very large bowl but I noticed right away that the broth didn’t have a deep maroon color that I’ve seen at other places. Instead, it looked almost like a clear broth with a lot of chili flakes in it.

The pho itself was good, not great. And while the broth was light, it did have a kick to it and really helped to clear up my sinuses. The meat parts weren’t as fresh as Pho Hoa Loa II and the accompanying fresh herbs used to toss into my soup were pretty standard: bean sprouts, basil leaves and lime wedges.

On another visit, I decided to order a rice dish. So I got the Com Bi Suon Nuong ($6.95, grilled pork chops and shredded pork). Again, it was a huge plate that arrived at my table, but the flavor itself was straightforward and nothing spectacular. It tasted like any other pork rice plate I’ve had at countless other Vietnamese restaurants.

On my most recent visit, I decided to try something different and ordered one of two claypots on the menu. I got the Com Tay Cam ($7.50), which on the menu says it’s a claypot with stir fried prawns, beef, chicken, veggies and fried rice. I love eating from a claypot ever since my trip to Vietnam. All the juices of the many ingredients meld together in this beautiful, rustic pot brought right to your table.

So I was disappointed when what arrived on my table looked strangely enough like some kind of Chinese broccoli stir fry. In my claypot were pieces of thinly sliced beef and chicken with just maybe two pieces of shrimp and lots of broccoli and button mushrooms. Oh, and there were a few pieces of zucchini.

The rice was broken rice, not fried rice, which was fine but misleading. And the overall flavor leaned heavy on the Chinese oyster sauce side instead of the more clean fish-sauce flavors of Vietnam. I was very disappointed at this dish, not only because I could make it easily at home on my own but because of the rudimentary ingredients used in what could be an authentic Vietnamese dish. They could have at least thrown in some Southeast Asian herbs.

So you can probably tell by now that if I were ever to meet that person who declared Rang Dong the best Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland, I’d laugh in his face. (OK, maybe not laugh because I’m not that kind of guy. But I would ask, “What were you thinking???”)

Don’t get me wrong, Rang Dong is a decent Vietnamese restaurant. You do spend a couple of dollars more for the cleaner settings, and you have more dishes to choose from. But in terms of vibrancy and authenticity in execution, it falls short. Then again, I don’t know if I’ve found the best Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland. It definitely isn’t Rang Dong. The quest for the best continues.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (Straightforward and clean)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Rang Dong in Oakland


Anonymous said...

Best meaning where the most white people eat. I am leery of anytime anyone says "best" anything....

Anonymous said...

I wandered into this place one time because it was convenient. Tried the bun bo hue, and it was exactly as you described. I found the broth to be a bit disappointing. Unfortunately, the broth is the weakest link in many restaurants' versions of these dishes.

Anonymous said...

Just a correction...Bun Bo Hue is not a pho dish. It is a noodle soup that originates from a different region of Viet-Nam. The broth is different; the noodles are different. That may explain why it is listed under House Specials instead of Pho.