Pho Real 

Vo's cranks up the hip factor at its newly reopened downtown location.

Whoa; that's totally Bourgeville!"

This shocked exclamation, courtesy of a charmingly irreverent server at the newly reopened Vo's Restaurant in downtown Oakland, came in the course of a lunchtime chat about the rash of restaurant robberies currently plaguing the East Bay. I mentioned the name of one of the restaurants most recently hit — an unlikely target, though nothing about the crime spree has seemed terribly predictable. My server's reaction was equal parts amusing and sobering, and it served as a reminder that the location of this branch of Vo's — unlike that of its sister restaurant in San Leandro — is most certainly not Bourgeville.

But it's been home since 1991, when Johnny Vo first opened his flagship restaurant's doors at a corner that's seen a lot of changes over the years. He opened his San Leandro restaurant five years ago, and since then it has earned praise for its pleasant atmosphere, warm service, and Americanized versions of Vietnamese classics. Meanwhile, devotees of the downtown spot had to wait out a multi-year renovation. The makeover was funded in part by the City of Oakland — specifically the façade and tenant improvement programs offered to downtown entrepreneurs. Johnny enlisted the free services of an architect and an interior designer, and received grants offsetting the cost of renovations. Vo's new look firmly establishes the restaurant in the echelon of fellow downtowners like Luka's Taproom, Franklin Square Wine Bar, and Flora — other businesses helped by the city's programs.

Visitors to the revamped restaurant are instantly struck by the expensive-looking art on the walls, a long, sleek bar manned by a stylishly garbed young bartender, bold red walls, and an open, airy feeling. On my first visit to the restaurant, with a group just in time for happy hour (4 to 7 p.m. weekdays, featuring nearly two dozen small plates from $4 to $8), we also were struck by the high-volume Japanese synth-pop blasting from the speakers. Feeling a bit like an exile from Bourgeville, one of my companions complained about the noise loud enough to be overheard by the bartender, who quickly and cooperatively asked what she'd rather listen to. Oh, it's okay, I'm just old ... said my friend, and sure enough when I discussed the vibe at Vo's with Johnny, he noted that the volume and music choices might not be for everyone. Thankfully, seekers of a more serene atmosphere need only proceed to the main dining area, where the music is piped in at a much lower volume.

Tricking out the ambience of a restaurant isn't without risk, especially when said restaurant offers a type of cuisine that can also be found in bare-bones, brightly lit joints for pennies on the dollar. You raise expectations: über-hip music, red walls, and soju cocktails set the stage for great food — or for disappointment in its absence. Vo's is still working out some kinks — mostly in the easily fixable realm of timing, but for the most part it delivers on its new aesthetic.

My happy-hour party started with chicken wings served with a peppery lemongrass dipping sauce, and salmon rolls wrapped in rice paper in the classic Vietnamese style. The first dish was tasty — it steered clear of the rubbery quality that chicken wings can sometimes have. But the rolls were uninspired. Johnny is quick to note that salmon is not a fish traditionally served in Vietnam, and perhaps this was the problem. Nothing terribly wrong here, but if you're used to this dish seeming almost effortlessly tasty, you'll be disappointed.

Vo's menu features three claypots for dinner and two at lunch, and we loved the caramelized ginger chicken version, especially enjoying the chicken's perfectly cooked tenderness. I ordered a curry dish — the vegetarian version of curried shrimp, which substituted tofu and also included potatoes and carrots. Holy cardamom was our consensus — I certainly gobbled it up with glee, but there was a certain burnt-spice bitterness to it. I also found myself wishing for something green or at least a non-starchy vegetable in the mix, as the carrots, potato, and tofu combined with the rice the dish came with to create quite a starch fest. The shaken beef (I've seen it more often as shaking beef, but either gets the message across that small chunks of meat are tossed in a wok or skillet) was a little tough, and my companion who ordered it noted that the beef was just "warm-ish." Again, timing is everything — and thankfully it's fixable.

Dessert was fabulous — I especially loved the green tea ice cream, which will delight green-tea purists with an authentic flavor that veers toward oolong. Frosted grapes, lemongrass sorbet, and vanilla crème brûlée were other offerings that beckoned, but on our server's recommendation we went for the fried bananas with ice cream and had no regrets — sweet with just a trace of crispness and immensely pleasing to the banana junkies in our crowd.

Vo's license limits its alcohol service to beer and wine, but as with so many other liquor-free joints these days, they've gotten creative with an array of soju cocktails. Long lists of bottled beers, wines by the glass, and sakes served in a range of bottle sizes were equally impressive.

Vegetarians will do well at Vo's but are advised to inquire about the details of any substitution. The menu features many meat-free dishes, with several more starred as having a meat-free variation, and my first experience with a substitution — the curried tofu in lieu of shrimp — wasn't stellar. On my second Vo's visit, I had the duck cabbage salad minus the duck — an order that prompted a quizzical look from my waitress. It turned out to be a wise choice — I loved every bite of the crispy cabbage and its strongly flavored citrus-and-peanut dressing.

That second visit also introduced me to the dish I can't wait to go back for: Bánh Xèo, or Vietnamese crepes with prawns, pork, and sprouts. The crepes are served with mustard greens, and the act of wrapping bites of the crispy, almost lacy pork-and-shrimp-filled crepe in leaves and dipping them in the accompanying sauce (an in-house special recipe similar to fish sauce) was almost as satisfying as the rich mingling of textures and flavors here. Yum. I washed it down with a delightfully sweet Thai iced tea — on the house, as an apology from my server for a very minor wait to take my order — and felt a million miles from Bourgeville indeed and all the better for it.


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