Kim's Coffee Shop | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 5447 Penn Ave., Garfield. 412-362-7019
Hours: Tue.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m-10 p.m.; Sun., 4-9 p.m.
Prices: $6-9
Fare: Vietnamese and Chinese
Atmosphere: Danang diner
Liquor: Beer and wine

The framed, yellowing clippings on the walls of Kim's Coffee Shop are a time capsule from the early 1980s, when "Vietnam" still connoted a distant jungle ravaged by a protracted war, ultimately consigned to communism. The Iron Curtain still hung heavy between states divided by cold war; Vietnam was not yet a hip destination for adventure travel, much less its cuisine a conceivable option for dinner. Yet fewer than 10 years after the fall of Saigon, this tiny restaurant was started by South Vietnamese boat people looking for a new start in a new land, hopefully offering their native cuisine, tempered by the more certain draw of Chinese food. At Kim's, the flavor of that dynamic era remains, as authentic Vietnamese dishes share a menu with hoary "Chinese"-American fare like chop suey and chow mein.

For years we maintained a wary curiosity about Kim's, whose windowless façade and orphan location in a converted garage in Garfield lent us no clues as to its quality. A recommendation from an acquaintance finally urged us in the door, and the friendly, comfortable setting convinced us to stay. A favorite of locals and regulars, Kim's -- now run by the sister of the original Kymberly, who escaped South Vietnam with her parents in 1975 -- is the sort of bare-bones, unpretentious but sound Chinese eatery that is so common in other cities, but less so in Pittsburgh, where white-tablecloth restaurants look askance at takeout counters with faded plastic photos of General Tso's and generic stir-fry.

Fitting comfortably in between these two extremes, Kim's occupies a modest yet clean and cozy dining room decorated with the typical Asian ephemera, fans and inlaid lacquer panels. If its windowlessness makes eating at Kim's the opposite of dining outdoors, it also creates a self-contained atmosphere for dinner without distraction from worldly cares (though the TV mounted prominently over the beer and wine cooler offers a window into a different world). A hand-lettered posterboard charmingly describes and illustrates pho, the definitive Vietnamese beef broth. But this is served only on weekends, so on a Tuesday night, we contented ourselves with a mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese off the epic regular menu.

Steamed dumplings arrived six to a plate, accompanied by a clear dipping sauce flecked with red pepper flakes. They were obviously handmade, leading us to expect tender wrappers and flavorful filling, but instead we encountered gummy, dried edges and bland, too-firm pork inside. With the sauce's not-so-subtle fish-sauce flavor, this dish failed to live up to its appetizing appearance.

Asparagus crab soup sounded wonderful, featuring two of our favorite ingredients, but we found its mucilaginous texture and colorless appearance -- even the asparagus was white -- unappetizing. Jason was able to close his eyes and appreciate the mild flavor, but Angelique found the taste as bland as the color, lacking the anticipated play of sweet crab and earthy asparagus. To be honest, we've never tried this soup elsewhere, so we have no idea how Kim's compares, but this bowl did not inspire us to try others.

We had a far better experience with Kim's beef salad. Shaved beef was cooked in garlic, lemongrass and onions until it was as tender as melted chocolate, served on a bed of lettuce and topped with crunchy crushed peanuts. The bright lemongrass tang and light, barely-there sauce unquestionably evoked the flavors of Vietnam.

Continuing our exploration of the owners' homeland, Angelique ordered a Vietnamese entrée of chicken with ginger. Substantial matchsticks of fresh ginger imparted a delightfully vivid taste, but this was not integrated with the sliced chicken breast, which had been cooked in an all-purpose brown sauce, the ubiquity of which is the bane of Angelique's Chinese restaurant experience. Is this syrupy sauce a staple of Vietnamese cooking too? We're not sure, but we thought it detracted from, rather than contributed to, the gingery pleasure of this dish.

Finally, Jason conducted his standard test of Chinese food by ordering one of his favorites, mu shu pork, and it was excellent. Shredded vegetables and pork stir-fried in just a little flavorful oil make for a tasty filling on the crepe-thin pancakes. Kim's preparation is typical in the best sense.

In all, Kim's stands out more for friendliness and remarkably reasonable prices than for any pretense of being swept away to far Hanoi or Hunan. The food was inconsistent, though we wished we could have tried the pho, and we will return with that goal in mind. We'll go back, too, for another taste of the best Kim's has to offer, which is an immigrant success story still unfolding on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh.

Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars