There are so many Vietnamese restaurants in Anchorage that the opening of a new one might not even cause a blip on my restaurant radar. So I was surprised when Gia Dinh, a new Vietnamese spot on International Airport Road, started vying for my attention: a Facebook message here, a text message there, a mention from a parent in the school pick-up line, and a couple of emails from readers all added up to what can only be described as buzz.
A little fresh snow and a cold snap was enough to send me looking for savory soup and spice and to answer the question: Does Anchorage need another Vietnamese restaurant?
Happy spoiler alert: The answer is yes.
I paid my first visit with my teen daughters — both pho enthusiasts. The dining room of Gia Dinh is modest but clean and pleasant. My daughters and I began with an order of egg rolls ($9) and the Gia Dinh chicken wings with fries ($10.50 for six).
The egg rolls were a fine version of the classic — perfectly crisp and stuffed with highly seasoned ground pork and sweet, earthy carrots. The wings and french fries — with "Dad's seasoning," according to the menu — were disappointingly monochromatic on the plate but delivered good crunch and a pleasantly spicy kick. Sad side note: Gia Dinh has no bar.
Being the seasoned children of a food writer, both girls quickly ordered pho before I could harangue them into ordering more adventurously. So I was left to order from other areas of the menu. I finally opted for the hu tieu mi nuoc ($14.95), specifically recommended by a reader, a shrimp and pork noodle soup.
My daughters' soups — one with meatballs ($11.95/$13.95) and one with chicken ($12.40/$14.95) did not disappoint. The beef bone broth is redolent with the gentle licorice-y flavor of star anise. Slices of onion, ample quantities of meatballs and lean, sliced chicken breast made for satisfied customers. But it was the hu tieu mi nuoc that I'm still thinking about.
A soupy noodle dish teeming with shrimp, pork, vegetables and aromatics, this dish has something for everyone. Sweet, plump, tail-on shrimp along with pork served three ways: roast, ground, and stuffed into crispy, deep-fried pockets of wonton. Tiny, lacy rings of charred green onions float alongside bright green slices of raw onion. Toothsome egg noodles tangle with softer, more pliant rice noodles.
All of these delicious elements swim together in a clear, clean savory broth. I could not have loved this dish more. I went back the following week with my husband and summoned all of my willpower not to order the hu tieu mi nuoc again. Instead, I ordered the highly recommended chicken salad ($11.99) while my husband opted for the bun thit nuong ($13.95), a cold rice noodle dish, with barbecue pork.
Our server asked us if we like spice and I quickly said yes. "Mom" had just made a fresh batch of her special hot sauce, he explained with obvious pride. "She grinds everything from scratch." It came to the table in a small little ramekin and I tasted just a teeny bit on the end of a chopstick. Be warned: This sauce is not for the meek. It might make you cry.
My chicken salad was so fresh and vibrant, it was like spring on a plate. Crisp, minty and herbaceous, with a light, bright dressing that highlights the vegetables rather than drowns them. My husband's bun dish was another winner. Smoky barbecue pork shares a plate with cold rice noodles, lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, green onion, and chopped peanuts, It's crunchy, tender, saucy, salty, and bright.
Because I couldn't manage to find room for a banh mi sandwich during either of my two visits, I decided to get one to go ($11.99 for the grilled pork variety). I love this French- Vietnamese hybrid and this was a wonderful version. The pork is beautifully seared and seasoned with a deep smoky flavor, beautifully balanced by the earthiness of carrot and cucumber salad and the bright acidity of the pickled vegetables.
One of my favorite things about dining at Gia Dinh was the obvious satisfaction that the servers seemed to feel when bringing dishes out from the kitchen. It's a family-run restaurant and there's a clear sense of family pride. Not surprising then to learn that Gia Dinh means family in Vietnamese. I'm just glad that their family is around to feed mine.
If you go:
549 W. International Airport Road, #A1
Monday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.