One of the most buzzworthy restaurants that have opened in recent months can be found on the far end of International Boulevard, serving up Vietnamese dishes not typically found along that popular ethnic strip in Oakland.
The Temple Club is a lively, hip spot by Chef Geoffrey Deetz, who spent 16 years living in Vietnam and opening restaurants like the Black Cat in Ho Chi Minh City. He’s brought the flavors of Central and North Vietnam to his new restaurant, decorated with brightly colored murals with a small open kitchen and a mezzanine level for additional seating.
I visited twice in recent weeks, once for lunch with my friend Virginia and then a second time for dinner with my friend Vera (yes, I have a lot of friends with names starting with “V”). The crowd is mix, with families and couples who are discovering the spot (there really isn’t many other things on the block).
Deetz’s menu, which he describes as “the bold cuisine of Vietnam,” is smaller than what you’ll typically find at Vietnamese restaurants (which can sometimes be several laminated pages) and sometimes the lunch menu may be different than dinner. For example, the bun bo hue — the signature beef soup noodle dish from Central Vietnam — was on the lunch menu but wasn’t offered for dinner when I went.
There are items to discover, like the goi tai heo ($12), a poached pig ears salad made with sliced banana flower, shredded cabbage, mint, peanuts and rau ram in a spicy and tangy fish sauce dressing. It comes out looking like a flower with the white petals created on the plate with shrimp chips.
Several of the noodle dishes are available in a small or large bowl size, which Temple Club notes as “street bowl” (that’s the small) and “American bowl” (the large because I guess Americans eat a lot). Virginia and I tried the street bowl version of the mi quang phu chiem ($7), a special noodle dish from Quang Nam province that’s made with shrimp, pork, shallots, annatto oil and crushed peanuts and herbs, served with a large toasted sesame chip that you’re told to break apart and sprinkle on top. On the menu, this dish is offered with frog legs as an option.
The mi quang phu chiem is definitely different than what you’ll find at most Vietnamese restaurants, so it was refreshing to try something different. The flavors, though, are more one note because of the flat rice noodles that are used to absorb much of the spiciness. It didn’t seem to be as bold as I thought it would be.
But flavors pop up in other ways too, like the goi cuon nem chua ($9), fresh spring rolls filled with house-made grilled sour pork sausage and sliced pig ears, filled with sesame leaf, greens, and rice noodles. I enjoyed the savory flavor of the pork sausage slices, and would have enjoyed more of it in the rolls.
Being crab season, there’s a special tamarind crab, Saigon style, on the menu right now, or you can always order the traditional mien xao cua ($16), or glass noodles sauteed with fresh crab, shallots, green onions, cilantro, rau ram, egg, carrots, and cat ear mushrooms.
The two soup noodle dishes I tried actually was on the average side for me, decent but not popping with bold flavors as I hoped. the bun ca nha trang ($7 street bowl/$14 American bowl) has subtle seafood flavors from the grilled king mackerel, fish cake slices, bamboo, tomato and herbs. On this night, the rice noodles were also a bit on the soft side, not as bouncy.
The pho bo chua ($7/$14) is apparently a Food Network-winning dish, according to the menu. It’s Deetz’s pho bowl filled with tasty sliced corned beef brisket and filled out with water celery, green onions, bean sprouts and sliced onions. Like how pho is served in the North, the bowls come with the necessary greens and herbs already added in and not on the side like when eating pho in the south.
While I really enjoyed the corned beef brisket, the broth was also a bit on the mild side with not much depth. There’s better pho broth around town.
There’s only one dessert item on the menu, but it’s a must order if you’re adventurous or a durian lover. As some of you might know, durian is the stinky fruit from Southeast Asia that has a sweet flavor but unique smell; many compare it to eating good cheese that smells funky yet tastes good. The durian flavor is definitely in the house-made dessert of durian cheesecake, which had an amazingly light fluffy texture.
The last bite
There are some dishes at The Temple Club that falls flat (such as the soup noodles) but there are enough interesting and different dishes to make the menu worth checking out. I appreciate a place that tries to introduce the American eating public to more native dishes of another country.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: The Temple Club, 2307 International Blvd. (at 23rd), Oakland. PH: 510.479.3680. Open lunch, Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 3 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. templeoaklandclub.com
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