The addition of yet another casual Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle is typically not occasion for excitement. However, when it comes to a neighborhood like Lower Queen Anne, distinguished by mostly bars and cheap, run-of-the-mill restaurants, it’s a different story. Even better when it’s a Vietnamese restaurant and ale house, with a menu that offers staples as well as some fun surprises, more than 20 beers on tap, and beer cocktails.
Coba Viet Kitchen and Ales(530 First Ave. N., 283-6614) is immediately inviting. It’s modern with gray tones and lots of wood, bronze accents (like on the beer tap pulls), a mural with a white chalk-like outline of a Vietnamese farmer balancing pails on her back, and the front end of a tuk tuk at the entrance.
And while you’ll find pho and noodle salads, it’s really the more distinctive items worth seeking out here (though I give props to the oxtail pho for coming with bone-on chunks of meat). Take for instance the master stock crispy chicken. A small plate for sharing, it’s a thigh and leg cooked in a traditional “master stock,” then pan-fried and served with sautéed yu choy greens. It has a gingery-garlic flavor, and it reminds me of duck, both in its preparation and its sweetish flavor profile. It makes for a perfect appetizer or, as they suggest, something to share alongside other dishes. Ditto with the betel leaf beef cracker.
Betel leaf was not something I was excited to see on a menu. After living in Taiwan and watching men chew the addictive leaf and spit its red juice all over the street, I hardly thought it was edible. But I was quickly proven wrong. Served with char-grilled, grass-fed beef in a slightly sweet sauce, the earthy, slightly bitter leaf is a great diversion in flavor that adds depth to the dish. Piled on a sesame cracker, it becomes a crunchy, delicious snack. (You can also get the betel leaf beef in a noodle bowl.)
Unfortunately, the noodle bowl we did have—with charred grilled prawns in salt and pepper—was just ho-hum. The shrimp are large and plentiful (about six or seven on a skewer), but they don’t have the salty/peppery punch I was expecting. They also forgot to bring the sweet-and-sour sauce that dresses the vermicelli (a mistake, along with forgetting the herbs and lime for the pho, that they quickly fixed). The other issue was that these main dishes came before the small plates (oops), but since we ate at the bar, I’m a little more forgiving of this kind of snafu. Plus, the bartender was very friendly—and refreshingly honest, steering people away from the wings (not very crispy, he says) and toward those items he wholeheartedly recommends. (It’s often the case that a bartender will speak more frankly than a server.)
The cocktails, too, are tasty. A Lychee Delight is a beguiling blend of gin, grapefruit, lychee fruit (canned), and an IPA on tap. The beer is noticeable only in the aftertaste, and, with the grapefruit, balances the fruit’s sweetness and the gin’s herbal notes. My friend had a Saigon 5 Spice, not a drink for anyone who doesn’t like star anise and strong herbal flavors. It’s fun to watch it being made, as the bourbon/star anise/orange zest base gets infused with the smoke from a burning cinnamon stick. And while I’m no beer aficionado, I did recognize some interesting options, from a Humboldt Chocolate Ale to a Reubens Saison.
Coba is just right for the neighborhood, comfortable and friendly, not fussy yet interesting, and with plenty of beers for the drinking crowd. I’d easily recommend it as a go-to before or after a movie at SIFF, or even as a lunch option for families spending the day at Seattle Center’s various attractions.