Smile Politely

My first pho

This week my friends wanted to go to Xinh Xinh Café in Urbana, hidden in the strip mall behind Starbucks and the Schuncks gas station. I was skeptical about going because Asian cuisine is not my first choice; it’s not bad, but it’s not my first pick. I guess I am not that adventurous, or maybe I fear strong fish sauces that my palate is not accustomed to. I admit this is my problem and am working on it.

In anticipation for our upcoming dining experience, I looked up Xinh Xinh’s menu online and was pleasantly surprised. I know this is the place to expand beyond my usual pot stickers and cashew chicken. Many dishes are served with lettuce, carrot, daikon, cucumber and cilantro. I’m shocked. So many vegetables! I love vegetables. Cilantro in an Asian dish? Clearly, I have a lot to learn. For appetizers, there are spring rolls, summer rolls, and egg rolls. Also, there were pot stickers! Whew, my back up was available.

I called another friend to share my surprise, this did not seem like the standard Chinese or Thai menu. I learned that Xinh Xinh is a Vietnamese restaurant and that Vietnamese is different from other Asian cuisines because of the French influence. I saw that influence reflected on the menu in the Bahn Mi sandwiches. The Dac Biet or Special Combo Sandwich ($6.75) has jambon (the French word for ham), headcheese, pork roll, and pate, and comes on baguette. I understand why the restaurant is listed online as serving vegetarian, Vietnamese, and sandwiches.

We arrived in the early afternoon to a bright, clean restaurant with a friendly staff of two, one of whom is the owner Somchai Pounginjai. He is the fourth owner of the Xinh Xinh Café, and took over in January of 2016. I found the décor to be joyful and soothing. Calming art of tranquil images, such as flowers on backgrounds of deep colors, juxtaposed with corrugated metal wainscoting nicely balanced each other. It was a nice place for a conversation, or to hide out and get some work done. (Free Wifi is available.) The restaurant is also wheelchair accessible. The aisles are wide and the restrooms are single occupancy with ample room for a chair. There are tables for large groups, as well. Further, the food came out quickly, so it is a great restaurant for lunch.

Looking over the menu, we ordered the Chao Tom Cuon or Shrimp Cake Summer Rolls ($5.95), mainly because we wanted to know exactly what shrimp cake is. It is the consistency of crab cakes (without the lumps) that has been rolled thin into a rectangle that fits the rice paper. When it arrived, we see the grilled shrimp cake wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, carrot, daikon, cucumber and cilantro, served with lime fish sauce. The rice paper was professionally wrapped up without any imperfections. If you have ever tried to work with rice paper while cooking at home, you know how delicate it is. I am taken away with the vegetables neatly bursting from the roll, the green of the lettuce, and the orange of the carrots. I am nervous about lime fish sauce but shouldn’t be: it was sweet, like a light dressing, and doesn’t taste like fish at all.

We also ordered pho. If you search online for recipes on how to make pho, many websites will say it is easy to make — I beg to differ. To make pho correctly, it takes a minimum of 6 hours and finding that kind of time is difficult. A good pho is characterized by its clear broth and aromatics. We asked and the owner explained a bit about how he prepares his broth. The beef stock is made from beef bones and brisket then spiced with anistar, cinnamon, toasted coriander, ginger, onion, cardamom, and fennel seeds for aromatics.

Xinh Xinh offers many choices for the pho: round steak, flank steak, brisket, meatball, tendon and tripe, or tofu. All phos are topped with scallions and cilantro and accompanied with side of Thai basil leaves, long coriander, bean sprouts, jalapeño peppers, and lime wedges for garnishing. If the jalapeños are not enough heat for you, additional sauces for spice are available table side.

We also chose the Pho Tai Bo Vein with round steak and beef meatballs ($7.95). Look at the beautiful spoon served to drink the broth with. On Wednesday nights from 5 p.m to close, all phos are just $6.

Another dish to try when at a Vietnamese restaurant is Bahn Mi, or the sandwiches. We have Bahn Mi Ga Nuong or the grilled chicken sandwich ($5.95). It comes on baguette from a Vietnamese bakery in Chicago with home style mayonnaise sauce, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber, onions, cilantro and jalapeños. The baguette is airy and the crust is thinner than a traditional French baguette. I am concerned that the size of the baguette would make the sandwich dry. However, the home style mayo, the lightness of the bread, and the juiciness of the chicken are just right and the jalapeño gives pleasant pops of heat to occasional bites. The delicate crunch will leave crumbs on your lap.

The owner suggests that we also try the Bun Ga Nuong, or grilled chicken vermicelli bowl ($7.95). I have a good feeling about it and agree. The chicken is prepared in the same manner as the sandwich. The chicken is marinated overnight with brown sugar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and green onion. The vermicelli, or rice stick noodles, are served on bed of greens, fresh herbs and bean sprouts topped with chopped vegetable egg roll, roasted peanuts and side of lime fish sauce for dressing.

Lastly, there is a plethora of non-alcoholic drinks available, many made in house. The avocado shake is stuck in my mind ($4.25). Further, there is also a nice assortment of canned specialty drinks for $1.49. Tea and soft drinks are also available.

Xinh Xinh is a long standing Urbana institution with a new owner. For those of you working downtown, give it a shot for a quick lunch. For those who can’t make it out, delivery is available on their website through Yelp or Grub Hub. Try the Pho, the national dish of Vietnam, or discover for yourself the difference between spring, summer, and egg rolls.

Xinh Xinh is located at 114 N Vine St, Urbana, and open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

All photos by Rebecca Johnson. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the restaurant as Xihn Xihn, not Xinh Xinh. 

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