My Ngoc | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 2120 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-765-1150
Hours: Open 7 days, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and soups, $1.50-6.95; entrees $5.95-15.95
Fare: Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese
Atmosphere: 80s minimalist
Liquor: Full bar with limited wine

My Ngoc is probably best known for what happens outside its doors. At all hours, you can find one of Pittsburgh's great street chefs, Lucy Sheets, plying her trade from a gas grill and table full of condiments on the sidewalk in front of My Ngoc. Here she creates banh mi, better known in these parts as Vietnamese hoagies: spiced pork or barbecued chicken and pickled vegetables on French rolls. After years of sustaining our stamina for Strip District shopping with those sandwiches, we decided to venture indoors and sample a broader menu.

Quite a bit broader, as it turns out, though less satisfying. Whereas banh mi are a true triumph of Asian-colonial culinary fusion, My Ngoc's indoor kitchen serves up three distinct cuisines -- Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai -- which, though geographically and gastronomically related, on the menu remain strictly segregated, each to its own page. My Ngoc also offers a large selection of fruity soft drinks, including some made with those trendy tapioca "bubbles." As it turned out, such sweet treats offered a near-necessary respite from My Ngoc's spicy offerings from all three nations.

We began with Thai soups, tom yum gai and tom kha gai, which arrived plenty hot in both senses of the word. The former, a hot and sour broth with mushrooms, chicken, tomato and herbs, is a favorite of Angelique's, and even though she is not a personal fan of fungus, she appreciated that My Ngoc's version did not skimp on sliced 'shrooms. The latter, made with coconut milk, can have an intensely creamy character; at My Ngoc, it was more brothy, but with notes of lemongrass and cilantro.

With summer too far away to contemplate, we set our sights on spring rolls from the Vietnamese side of the menu. Meatier than most, they were a hearty pleasure dipped in sweet-spicy sauce.

For our entrees, we selected a representative from each country on the menu. From the Thai page, moo prig khing, sautéed pork in red curry, stood out for its unusual texture and taste. A dry curry sauce merely coated the meat and vegetables and contributed a tasty, tangy note in addition to its expected piquancy. The vegetables -- a mix of broccoli, peppers, onions and snow peas substituted for the green beans listed on the menu -- were lightly cooked, retaining their fresh colors and crisp textures.

The Chinese menu contained no surprises, but a parade of Americanized standards. Inspired to try seafood by the mesmerizing fish tanks in one corner of the dining room, we tried kung pao shrimp, that simple but fiery preparation with a modest, clingy sauce. At least that's how we like it. My Ngoc's version was spicy, all right, but also had an unpleasant sweet-and-sour undertone, and the thin sauce ran off the large, soft shrimp before they reached our lips. The broad mix of stir-fried veggies were, again, well-cooked, but short on the red peppers we felt this dish really needed for balance.

Finally, we sampled the home cuisine of My Ngoc's Vietnamese proprietors. Recognizing few familiar preparations from previous Vietnamese restaurant experiences, we relied on menu descriptions to guide us. Lobster stir-fried with lemongrass on a bed of lettuce sounded like it might embody the distinctively light and lively, bright and fresh character of Vietnamese cuisine. We were dismayed when the lobster arrived deep-fried in a coarse, nutty batter that obliterated the rich delicacy of this king of crustaceans, and taken aback by how spicy a "four" on the old one-to-10 scale could be. Less of a surprise, but still a disappointment, was the pale appearance of the lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers in January, although crisp red onion strips did add welcome zing to the stout, breaded shellfish.

My Ngoc's menu promises the best of three worlds, but our meal reminded us that such ambitious promises are rarely delivered. Our palates were open to My Ngoc's intriguing interpretation of Thai food, but the Chinese and Vietnamese we tried were, as a child acquaintance of Angelique's once put it, "not delicious." Better, perhaps, to rely on the singular certainty of a perfect banh mi, peerlessly prepared before your eyes.

Jason: 1.5 stars
Angelique: 1.5 stars

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