Green Leaf Love
Culinary Greatness at Hole-in-the-Wall Prices
Green Leaf is the kind of place you selfishly want to keep a secret.
It's been open for about three months on a quiet block in the International District. The Vietnamese food is delicious and exciting and satisfying and good-looking and cheap as hell—a gift of greatness at hole-in-the-wall prices. The narrowish eight-table space is far nicer than need be; it's nearly lovely, done in soothing taupe with bamboo wainscoting, thoughtfully put together with attractive chairs and sconces that carry out the bamboo theme. The servers are like ideal older sisters: kind and pretty and instructive at the right moments. Even the Muzak, while inherently terrible, is kind of enjoyable in this context as it veers calmly from the longest-ever version of "Tequila" to Simon and Garfunkel to a synth-on-crack rendition of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."
A tactic of choosing among the weirder-sounding dishes yields extremely gratifying results. I'd heard about bahn xeo, a savory Vietnamese crepe/omelet-type thing, but never experienced it. At Green Leaf, it's a thrill when it's brought to the table: two giant half-moons, turmeric scented and colored ($6.95). Made with rice flour and coconut milk (no eggs, despite the texture), bahn xeo are crisp outside, moist and chewy inside; these are filled with tons of bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork. You also get an enormous heap of cilantro, basil, mint, and lettuce leaves; you're meant to wrap a piece of bahn xeo with herbs in lettuce, then dip it in fish sauce (as kindly explained by your server). It's messy, fun, and brings together greasy and fresh in an outstanding way.
You'll want to share your bahn xeo; same goes for "Fried Flour Cake," which is basically a heart attack on a plate. Picture the unholy offspring of a crouton and a beignet: glistening pieces of fried-brown dough with green onions and egg clinging to them. You dip them in a sweetish soy sauce, then have a bite of the crinkle-cut, lightly pickled jicama/carrot/green papaya garnish as a health measure. Like a savory funnel cake, it's so bad, it's terrific.
Another odd dish, "Stuff Escargot Meat & Pork Meat" ($5.50), proves to be big oblong meatballs skewered through with lemongrass—funny looking, but beautifully presented on a small field of salad and indubitably tasty. Rice noodle with coconut sauce ($3.50) is blander than you might like, but still different and good, made with springy noodles and shredded pork, served room temperature. As for strange dessert, it doesn't get much more bizarre than "Herb Desse[r]t (seaweed, dried longan, dried plum in light syrup)" ($2.50), a tall glass of iced, excruciatingly sweet brown liquid with waterlogged plums, miscellaneous peelings, and plumped-up whole oat berries (I think) suspended in it, creating a demented bubble-tea effect.
Less adventurous dishes are superior here as well, like the Vietnamese favorite beef la lot ($5.95)—a smoky, rosy-red, almost chocolaty beef mixture wrapped in wild betel leaves, grilled, and garnished with green onion, fried garlic, and peanut. Cabbage salad with duck ($5.95) beats some of the fanciest duck dishes in town by virtue of tender, toothsome, generous pieces of meat atop chiffonaded cabbage with cilantro, basil, and bits of fried shallot in a light rice-wine vinaigrette; green papaya salad with charred, grilled whole shrimp ($5.95) is another excellent deal—gorgeous, a little limey, fresh, crunchy. (The salads counterbalance whatever grease you've consumed in a miraculous manner; you leave here feeling not too stuffed, healthy, full of optimism.) I have yet to try the pho, the fried-duck noodle soup, the big bowls of cold rice vermicelli topped with vegetables and spring rolls, the seven courses of beef... I want to eat at Green Leaf every day until I do, for lunch or dinner or maybe both.
Green Leaf has two altars, a tiny one inside the front door and a bigger one that screens the kitchen (under a miniature bamboo roof, even). Presumably these are devoted to the success of the restaurant and happiness in general. Green Leaf deserves every success. And if you have a head equipped with a sense of adventure and a mouth, this place will make you very firstname.lastname@example.org