Olive at Woodson and McKnight seems to be becoming a culinary hot spot. Only the gas station on the southeast corner escapes gastronomic action. Dao Tien, in a building that began life as a Dairy Queen, sports a lime green and red-orange interior and a nice, clean fish tank, the latter a nice change from some places around town. Busier at lunch than dinner, many of the customers seem to be regulars.
The appetizer list is fairly brief, various rolls except for fried chicken wings. An order of grilled chicken goi cuon, spring rolls, was worthwhile, the chicken still moist and of a generous amount. Nuoc cham, the dipping sauce, sports more zip than usual, a nice little hit of heat in it, a good addition.
It took considerable self-discipline to pass up the chicken pho, which is listed with the specials rather than the noodle soups, in favor of the more usual beef-based phos. The special pho with oxtail, though, was alluring, oxtail being an old favorite cut of cow. The pho broth itself is rich and well-flavored, without the anise notes that some renditions have. Tossing in a few slices of jalapeno allowed a little of their heat to spred through the broth, and from the plate of add-ins, Thai basil, the long, narrow leaves of culantro, a wedge of lime and some bean sprouts all expand the options for the curious and the aficionado. (Hoisin and chili sauces are also at hand.) The special contained, besides the broth and noodles, large, thin slices of what might have been eye of round, but was very tender for that cut, meatballs in the dense, slightly chewy Asian style, a few ribbons of pale white tripe, and just a bit of equally pale beef tendon, with its slightly gristly texture. The large, thick cut of oxtail topped the bowl. As much as its friends love it, there's no tidy way to eat oxtail that large; it requires fingers or surgery with a knife and fork; it went home with the leftovers to be devoured in privacy. A good, satisfying dish, the broth light and full of flavor.
Banh mi must keep the lunch crowd pretty happy. Six different kinds of the sandwich, including one with sunny-side-up eggs, The "special" was packed with grilled pork, chicken, beef and a sausage, along with strips of cucumber, some lettuce, cilantro and a swipe of mayonnaise. Heavier on meat and lighter on vegetables than many of its kind, it's a large and hearty sandwich on a narrow baguette, the bread reminding us that the years of French colonial Vietnam left their culinary influence.
While the papaya with beef jerky sounded really interesting, a server explained to a nearby table that it wasn't being offered that night because the papaya available at the market was too ripe - the dish calls for the crunchy, unripe flesh. to be used in this salad-like dish. Nice to hear that they pay attention to this sort of detail. From the same section of the menu, entitled "special", a dish of spicy and salty spare ribs was a winner. Small pieces of ribs, easily picked up with chopsticks, are sauced with garlicky juices with plenty of black pepper and just a little faint sweetness. And, yes, salty as well, although the rice cuts both the salt and pepper nicely. (Black pepper is more used in the northern part of the country, interestingly.) Altogether, a worthwhile dish.
Che chuoi, described merely as Vietnamese banana dessert, brings chunks of warm banana in a coconut sauce thickened with tapioca, the whole thing topped with finely chopped salted peanuts. The combination of the salty, crunchy nuts with the sweet tender fruit is a revelation.
Dao, the proprietress, is frequently in the dining room, and often volunteers in the course of her conversation that she'll cook things the diners want. It's also a comfortable place for solo diners, and it's easy to get explanations about the food from the server on duty during my visits.
8600 Olive Blvd, University City
Lunch & Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good