Rice Paper

Written by Michele Laudig Category: Food Reviews Issue: January 2012
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In the case of this new modern Vietnamese restaurant – tucked into a renovated house on Seventh Street, a stone’s throw from other homey spots like Coronado Café and The Main Ingredient – speaking up about the kitchen’s exuberance with the salt shaker turned into an opportunity for conversation with the owner, Lan Tran.

She came over to my table to apologize as soon as the waiter took the plate away. Did I want another order, free of charge? I was perfectly content with the other appetizer I’d ordered, so I passed on seconds. In any case, calamari was removed from the tab.

This was just a couple weeks after the place opened late last summer, and although the restaurant itself was a rookie, I quickly learned that Tran and her sister Hue are seasoned industry vets. Not only do they shuttle back and forth between Rice Paper and Saigon Kitchen, their other restaurant in Surprise, but they also grew up in the biz. Their parents have a restaurant in San Diego, and the sisters snagged their mother’s top-secret recipe for hot chile sauce, which has a deep, savory, roasted pepper allure behind the tongue-searing heat.

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Tran struck me as quite gracious even before she offered me and my date a complimentary round of drinks. We declined, but when we returned for dinner a few weeks later, she recognized us and poured some house-made lychee-infused vodka, unprompted. Later, I noticed that she charmed everyone this way – that her generosity informed Rice Paper’s atmosphere as much as the stylish bar or the cool chandeliers or the sleek expanses of wood.

To me, this is the kind of hospitality that makes the difference between occasional patronage and frequent visits. Since there’s little in the way of Vietnamese food in Central Phoenix – and who doesn’t love an affordable, hip lunch and dinner spot where nothing’s more than $15? – Rice Paper is certainly worth a try, but it’s the personal touches that make it a strong contender for my new neighborhood fave.

This isn’t destination dining, but neither is it one of those dirt-cheap dives with a sprawling menu of serious Asian eats. Rather, Rice Paper makes Vietnamese food accessible for folks who might not know their sriracha from their hoisin, and convenient for anyone who doesn’t care to trek far from Downtown.

The restaurant’s name is a nod to the star item on the menu, goi cuon – fresh spring rolls packed with rice vermicelli noodles, strips of cucumber and frilly lettuce, each neatly wrapped in tender, translucent sheets of rice paper ($3.50). There are 15 different versions here, ranging from traditional (packed with plump shrimp, lean pork, sprouts and mint, with peanut hoisin for dipping) to trendy (smoked salmon, cream cheese, basil, and rice crisps with curry hoisin).

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As with sushi, I’m generally keen on tradition and wary of cream cheese in my rolls. But other nouveau options were pretty scrumptious. I especially loved the Spicy Asian ($4.50), with tangy Asian sausage, imitation crab, jalapeño, sriracha and crispy rolls. The burst of heat and delicate crunch in each bite, teamed with aromatic Asian pesto dip, made this the most vibrant roll of the bunch.

A handful of crispy fried spring rolls (cha gio) ($4.75) included pork, chicken, tofu and imitation crab versions; I went with pork and tofu and couldn’t discern much difference between the two. Honestly, the appeal of cha gio is less about the mild filling (which includes carrot, jicama, saifun noodles, onion and mushroom) and more about the hot-and-cold, fried-and-fresh dynamic created by the roll itself and the cool lettuce and mint that you wrap it in. Dipped in salty-sweet nuoc cham (a traditional “vinaigrette” made with fermented fish sauce), these just-fried rolls went down easy.

There was more fried food to nibble on. Deep-fried chicken wings ($9) got a drizzle of salty fish sauce reduction, while crispy firecracker shrimp ($9) were served with spicy aioli. Both were tasty with cold beer at the end of a long day.

Pho, the fragrant rice noodle soup that’s the pride of many Vietnamese restaurants, had a pleasing flavor here, and was topped with tender slices of raw beef that quickly cooked in the piping-hot broth ($9). I’d order it again, although I’d double-size the skimpy platter of sprouts and greens served with it.

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Meanwhile, salads were generous enough to eat as entrées. Ruby-red slices of seared ahi were splayed across a mélange of greens and vegetables tossed with miso-ginger dressing ($11), while strips of grilled pork atop cool rice vermicelli with sprigs and veggies amounted to a classic rendition of bun thit nuong, referred to here as Saigon salad ($10).

I quickly gobbled up a braised pork banh mi (a baguette sandwich stuffed with pickled carrot and daikon radish, jalapeño, cilantro, mayo and crispy shallots) ($8), enraptured with the flavor and tenderness of the meat. Sweet potato fries made a fine, if random, side dish.

Everything thus far was available at lunch or dinner, but several items were only offered after 4 p.m. Garlicky lemongrass chicken with noodles ($13) hit the spot, but I was even more intrigued with the intensity of two hot clay pot entrées. Braised pork with tiny hard-boiled quail eggs ($13) was rich and hearty on a recent chilly evening. And caramelized salmon ($15) – sizzled with onions, garlic, black pepper and fish sauce reduction – literally melted in my mouth.

One night, a waiter gave fair warning that they were making a last-minute batch of ginger crème brûlée ($6) that would probably sell out quickly. How could I resist Rice Paper’s lone dessert? What finally landed on my table was creamy custard capped with a golden layer of bubbly sugar – a perfect end to the evening.

Clearly, first impressions aren’t everything.

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Caramelized Salmon                                                   Inside Rice Paper

Rice Paper
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Address: 2221 N. Seventh St., Phoenix
Phone: 602-252-3326
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday-Saturday.
Highlights: Traditional spring rolls ($3.50), braised pork banh mi ($8), Saigon salad ($10), beef noodle soup ($9), caramelized salmon ($15).

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