You can get a pretty good sandwich at Vernor Coney Island early in the day. But on Saturday and Sunday evenings, the modest little spot blossoms into Flowers of Vietnam, with a menu of appealing dishes from the southeast Asian perspective.
Flowers of Vietnam is not quite a full-fledged restaurant yet, but it is much more than the pop-up it was in January when it opened for just one night a week. Now the schedule has doubled, and in a couple of months, the southwest Detroit hot spot will be open full time, serving its well-prepared sugarcane shrimp and caramel chicken wings throughout the week.
Chef and proprietor George Azar has created an appealing spot that is more like a party scene than a traditional dining room. He broke through a wall to add a number of tables and booths to the original limited counter seating, and a crowd attracted pretty much by word-of-mouth gathers Saturday and Sunday for the Vietnamese fare that the proprietor is introducing to the neighborhood where he grew up.
It’s a cuisine the Schoolcraft College culinary product learned to love for its complex flavors while working at restaurants in Chicago and Las Vegas before returning to his home base and the Coney Island in a building owned by his father. The menu is concise, with most of the dishes sharable, from the fried salt-and-pepper shrimp spiced with a potent Thai chiles, and a toss of cilantro and scallions, to the meatballs made with three different cuts of beef, to the pristinely fresh green mango and papaya salad atop thin rice noodles that comes with a bowl of nuoc mam (fish sauce) to apply for taste.
Each table is set with chopsticks, paper napkins tucked into the familiar little lunch counter style metal container, and bottles of hot sauce. The menus on crisp ivory stock list the Vietnamese names of the dishes, with English subtitles.
Azar does most of the cooking, with the help of a sous-chef, and he likes to note that no one on the staff has previous restaurant experience. The staff isn’t burned out and jaded, and maybe that explains the enthusiasm with which they deliver orders and fresh silverware as diners dig into the fragrant dishes and talk across tables with strangers, happy to be among those who have found this offbeat place during its infancy.
A group of four is just about right for trying a cross-section of the menu, which, of course, includes Azar’s interpretation of pho, the beef noodle soup that is the most familiar Vietnamese dish locally. But there’s much more that characterizes the cuisine, which is less fiery than Thai and lighter and more delicate than Chinese, dishes like the combination of crispy rice, grilled pork chop and Chinese sausage that is one of the 11 entrée choices.
Now about that name, Flowers of Vietnam: It came about purely by chance, when a designer working with Azar as he was putting together his concept misunderstood what was intended to be Flavors of Vietnam. A happy accident, and it stuck, giving this interesting spot a little extra intrigue.
Note that reservations are not accepted at this point.
Flowers of Vietnam
4430 W. Vernor, Detroit
Call: (313) 554-2085
Hours: 6-11 p.m. Sat.-Sun. only
Prices: Sharable dishes $9-$32, desserts $3.50-$8
Credit cards: All major
Liquor: House cocktails and a small beer and wine selection (to be expanded)
Noise level: Moderate
Parking: Small lot at corner of Vernor and Clark, across the street at the shoe store lot, and street.
Wheelchair access: No barriers