by Evan Hatch
My parents used to live in Graham, North Carolina. The burgs of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Durham were cultural destinations. Only 20 minutes down the road were concerts, exotic food, funky places to drop money, a better selection of cheeses. In July, 2014, my parents moved to Whitsett, North Carolina. Only 20 miles west of Graham, but much farther from the triangle, culture needed a new destination. And so it was. Gate City, the G Spot, Tourney Town, Ole Tuffy – Greensboro. Reviled in my youth, Greensboro is presently de rigueur. Gentrified and renewed downtown areas, music and culture fairs, Greensboro, like so many former urban centers, is brand new all over again.
It also happens to be home to one of America’s largest Hmong and Vietnamese refugee populations. Over 7,000 residents call the North Carolina Triad home. A resettlement locale, Greensboro serves as a crucial hub for these cultures.
And with culture, comes food. Touted as a Chinese BBQ/Vietnamese Restaurant, Van Loi II is a mighty destination. It is hidden in plain sight, stripmalled next to a Vietnamese coffee shop, closed on Tuesdays and run by friendly staff and some expert cooks. Whole barbecued ducks beckon from the plate glass window. Plain tables are covered with the traditional Asian condimentscapes – along with a fine addition. Plastic jars of white daikon ferment on every table, waiting to be unfurled. Once the lid is unscrewed, an earthy, attractive smell fills the surrounding air (one can almost see the vapors escaping their container). It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is worth it for the adventurous.
The menu is large, and small changes appear from visit to visit. My favorite soup Chicken Asparagus is no longer offered, a shame – it is viscous, piping hot, glistening and expertly made, I can only imagine the amount of work that goes into this concoction. If twenty paths of flavor converged on one spot, it would be in this soup. The Pho, offered with a selection of different land and sea proteins, is among the best I’ve had. A simple, bright broth, noodles with bite, and with little of the spiced perfume of some heavier Pho. Servings are more than generous, overflowing with fresh vegetable additions – one wonders how they afford to do it.
The duck is perfect. Crisp skin crackles, succulent meat, use your hands. The collections of offal and other exotics and are impressive-tripe, tendon, brain, intestine, blood. One of these days I will eat blood. On the last entrée page of the 8-page menu, crispy chow fun. A rich, layered sauce covers crisp emerald colored Chinese broccoli, collard greens, and asparagus. Crispy pan fried pastry on the side acts like American bread, with the flavor of a wonton.
Van Loi II is the place that makes you wish you can eat forever, and never fill up, only to keep eating. The flavors are from heaven.
Van Loi II
3829 #D High Point Road
Greensboro, NC 27407
Evan Hatch is a folklorist currently working with the North Carolina Folklife Institute in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson & Scotland counties. Since 2002, he worked in Middle Tennessee documenting traditional musical and material culture. He was producer at Spring Fed Records and served as President of the Tennessee Folklore Society.