323 White Street, Norman
What works: Tasty food and good service in an unpretentious, but attractive dining room.
What needs work: Of two desserts on the menu, one was unavailable three hours into the business day. Wine and high-point beer are forthcoming.
The Tip: In a familiar Campus Corner location, Coriander serves delicious Vietnamese food that may be customized to personal preference.Located next door to Victoria’s Pasta Shop and within crawling distance of The Deli, Coriander Cafe is nestled right in the heart of Campus Corner.
The simple and pleasing dining room is decorated with framed photos of daily life in Vietnam. Unlike many Asian menus with multiple laminated pages and scores of dishes that can be overwhelming to sort through, Coriander’s is a single 11 x 4 card. What’s genius is that it holds the key to dozens of combinations that the diner may design, based on a sandwich, rice bowl, noodle salad or lettuce wrap.
For instance, the classic banh mi sandwich ($6) made with crusty French baguette, pickled daikon radish, shredded carrot and jalapeños has several different possibilities. I chose one loaded with nem nuong (pork sausage). And was it ever loaded — this was the Hungry Man version of what’s often a lightweight sandwich.
Waiter Christina Day took our order by scrolling down an iPhone, entering the customized selections and sending them to a printer near the chef’s work station. My sandwich also could have been stuffed with sesame ginger beef, lemongrass chicken, roast pork or spicy hoisin tofu. Doubling the meat costs 2 bucks extra. Jalapeños too spicy? No problem deleting them, because every dish is made to order.
“Most of these recipes are from my mom, Huong Le,” owner Chris Le (pronounced lay) said. “A few are my grandmother’s.”
The Le family shares the familiar account of arriving in America after the fall of Saigon and becoming successful through hard work and perseverance. Their traditional Vietnamese family recipes were tweaked for a commercial setting in collaboration with Western-trained chef Jeremiah Caldwell, who now presides over the kitchen.
Le is a 2006 University of Oklahoma College of Architecture graduate who left his profession because of a love for food and the restaurant business. He and Caldwell had both worked together at Norman restaurant In the Raw before opening Coriander in a tough economy.
The duo has developed a loyal following in no small part because of vegan selections. Veggie egg rolls (three for $5) and spring rolls (two for $4) are packed with cucumber, lettuce, Vietnamese coriander and noodles. They’re little works of culinary art.
“My partner came up with a vegetarian pho broth that fooled my aunt and parents,” Le said. “They were astonished it didn’t have meat in it.”
Another vegetarian option, green papaya salad ($4) is a delicate mix of the slivered fruit with carrots, peanuts and cilantro. Surprisingly not sweet, it’s a tangy and refreshing burst of tropical flavor.
Unrepentant carnivores should try a beef short rib rice bowl ($7). It’s a generous serving that’s a favorite with one of the many OU Vietnamese Student Association members who have discovered the place. “We see some two or three times a week and know exactly what they want,” Le said. They crave an authentic taste from home.
One thing Le gets excited about is the cafe’s pickles. “We make our own,” he said. “We’re ecstatic that the farmers’ market is open, and we can get our hands on some great Indian cucumbers.”
To the greatest extent possible, Coriander sources its produce locally from establishments such as Norman-based Artisan’s Pride premium butcher, OKC’s Thanh-Son Tofu and Vinyard Fruit and Vegetable Company. Le said they’re strong believers in being locally, socially and environmentally responsible.
Back to the food, Coriander’s light noodle salad ($7) is its most popular entrée. “Two-to-one, we sell the most of those,” Le said. “People get full, but it’s really healthy and doesn’t bog you down for the rest of the day.”
Gluten-free rice noodles are paired with peanuts, daikon, carrots, cilantro and your choice of meat. I dressed mine with a tasty blend of toasted sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and dab of Sriracha sauce. It went well with exotic hibiscus-raspberry iced tea ($1.50).
Dessert is brownies or bread pudding (both $3.50). Coriander values being closely tied to the community, and they’re strengthening that connection one plate of noodles at a time.
Oklahoma Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambiance or service when appropriate.