Riverside’s Linh’s Bistro hits Vietnamese, but partially misses too

Photo: Lihn’s Bistro’s Rau Cai Xao Sa Ot (mixed vegetables with lemongrass)

By Warwick Kensington

In my travels to Southeast Asia, one of the most exciting aspects of the adventure is experiencing the local cuisine.  There is something about the food that drives me to visit every peasant kitchen I can on the streets of Vietnam (no easy task in a country of 100 million people), which yields some of the best culinary delights the world has to offer. So imagine my excitement when I was awarded the opportunity to dine for the Dayton City Paper for the first time, review Linh’s Bistro, and relive my own personal slice of Valhalla right here in Dayton. I went for both lunch and dinner with three different companions, including DCP’s very own Epicurean Empress Paula Johnson.

The bistro is a no-frills casual joint in the Page Manor strip mall with plenty of parking.  Each time we visited, we were promptly seated by a friendly staff member and served a pot of tasty hot green tea. Ahh, Kumbaya…

Sometimes ‘Hanoiing,’ Sometimes ‘Huế’ Good

Upon viewing the menu, we noticed a disproportionally copious amount of Chinese offerings, rather curious for a restaurant that brands itself as equal parts Vietnamese and Chinese on its website and exclusively Vietnamese on its storefront. When I think of Vietnamese cuisine, the first thing that comes to mind is lemongrass and pho. The genesis of pho dates to the early 20th century in northern Vietnam with French influence. It’s a wonderful, rich soup that expresses the local flavors of Southeast Asia (noodles made with rice, lemongrass, cinnamon, bean sprouts, cilantro, etc.).  So at our lunchtime visit, my vegetarian friend ordered the #56 Rau Cai Xao Sa Ot (Mixed Vegetables with Lemongrass) ($6.95) and I ordered two dishes, one, the Pho Bo Tai (Thin Sliced Beef Soup) ($6.95) and for the second dish, I asked my server to give me their best chicken entrée; she recommended the Mala chicken from the Chinese menu. All entrées come with a side of three choices of Chinese soups: wonton, hot and sour, or egg drop, all of which are made with meat broth (a noteworthy tidbit for my vegetarian readers). It would be better to also offer something Vietnamese as a side like a Pho, a coconut milk-based soup or a vermicelli salad. The vegetables with lemongrass were crisply appealing but void of the promised essence of lemongrass. The noodles in Pho Bo Tai were spot on, but the broth screamed for the store-bought jarred sauces (sriracha, hoisin, soy, etc.) sitting on the table in order to give it more depth. As for the Mala chicken, it was tasty and decently spiced, but a dish I could find in any Chinese restaurant or carry-out.

For dinner, Paula and I shared two appetizers: Thit Lui (Pork and Lemongrass kabobs) ($3) and Bi Cuon Shredded Pork Soft Roll (2) ($3). The pork kabob delivered the advertised lemongrass flavor I so love and were crispy, tender, and delicious.  The soft pork spring roll resembled the spring rolls I had eaten in Ho Chi Minh City, except yet again lacking in flavor and mostly filled with shredded greens. The star of the evening was the Hu Tieu Bo Sate (Sate Thin Sliced Beef Soup) ($7.95). The soup arrived in a cauldron sized bowl, which was enough for us to share with some left over for a take-home snack.  Unlike the Pho I had at lunch, this version was burgeoning with flavor and had a tasty rich broth to go with the perfectly prepared rice noodles.

Our hope for a trifecta of excellence hit a stumbling block when we shared two entrees to cap off the evening: Muc Xau Sa Ot (Squid with Lemongrass) ($10.95) and (Vit Chien Don) Crispy Duck ($13.95). The Duck arrived awkwardly plated in the same fashion as chicken wings at a sports bar, about 10 or so tiny pieces of meat and bone that came completely naked. If it was not for the fact that duck has so much flavor on its own, this dish would’ve been about as exciting as a rice cake.  The worst dish of the evening was the squid with lemongrass.  I have no idea if there is such a thing as imitation squid but if there is, it is surely what we were served on this evening, a labyrinth of rubbery, overcooked squid hiding its shame under a garish mound of sautéed onions.

A South China ‘C’

Linh’s is a general Asian bistro and less Vietnamese-centric than I expected. The dishes have been American-Chinesified to the point where it doesn’t stand out among other Asian restaurants that are so ubiquitous to our region. But the prices are super reasonable and the servers were very friendly and attentive, which is a big plus.

Based on my experiences, if you feel overwhelmed when contemplating this expansive menu, stick with the appetizers and the soups. If the other appetizers are as well made as the soft spring rolls and as delicious as the pork lemongrass kabobs, you shouldn’t go wrong and should have a decent culinary experience.  I would also give kudos to the soups, especially the sate thin-sliced beef soup—a meal on its own accord—even for a large man with a hefty appetite.

Linh’s Bistro is located at 5532 Airway Rd. in Riverside. For more information, please call 937.252.1857 or visit LinhsBistro.com 

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