A GREAT SECOND CHOICE

Several years ago, my husband and I temporarily moved to the southwest side of town while our downtown home was under renovation. What we especially missed in our short stint there were our frequent Vietnamese meals at the restaurants peppering the corner of Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue. We had uncontrollable cravings for summer rolls. We madly desired ground shrimp skewered by spikes of sugarcane. Oh, and that coffee! What better way to jolt awake than with a strong Vietnamese brew?

The urge was sometimes so great that we'd hurriedly hop in the car and drive half an hour to get our fix, and we made the long drive again and again. I always lamented the fact that there were no nearby Vietnamese restaurants to visit instead. But that's changed. Enter Rice Paper, a quaint restaurant discreetly tucked away in a virtually abandoned strip mall that, if not for a stalwart Kmart, might otherwise slip away into the nebulous zone of reconstruction.

Rice Paper is run by the multicultural Phan family; Hung and Ha Phan are Vietnamese brother and sister chefs, while their spouses, Milena (Nicaraguan) and Ted Rasico (Canadian) help with other duties. Although Hung worked in an Atlanta Vietnamese restaurant many years ago, he spent the last 10 years working as a tailor, while cooking like a fiend at home. What brought him back to cooking professionally? He simply wants to put his skills to work to nourish his customers. And he has a chef's secret. He uses a steeped broth of root herbs, mushrooms and vegetables to enhance every dish.

Upon entering Rice Paper, we were greeted by a friendly server and a waft of familiar smells: lemongrass, dried seafood, snipped basil and the clean scent of newly cut cucumbers. The restaurant was pretty, considering the ceiling-tiled, industrial, hollow space from which it had sprung. The room seemed softened around the edges with the addition of lush wooden panels and fresh flowers.

I immediately ordered a Vietnamese iced coffee ($1.95), a concoction of slow-dripped espresso and sweetened condensed milk. Rice Paper's was just OK Ã? slightly watery without the usual kick of coffee strong enough to bite, and tasting like candy. Next came the summer rolls ($2.95), a good version of shrimp, pork, vermicelli noodles and fresh herbs tenderly hidden beneath a delicate rice paper wrapper. The rolls were served with a peanut sauce that was smooth – not too sweet but not too salty – and made the not-too-special rolls truly shine. Next we had the squid salad, which everyone at the table gobbled up. I found the shredded mango and squid laced with cucumber, mint and pungent light sauce to be excellent, save for a slight staleness detectable in the squid.

Every last bite was finished up of rice vermicelli with sautéed pork and spring rolls ($6.95), a medley of bean sprouts, basil, spring rolls and seasoned meat atop a layer of vermicelli noodles. My husband liked his egg noodle soup ($6.95), but found it somewhat underseasoned until he heaped on red chile and soy sauces. My discerning little sister ordered the shrimp curry and offered this insight: "It's really good," which means a lot coming from her. We topped it all off with a satisfactory flan ($3.95) that rounded out the meal.

Rice Paper was very good. Will I go back? Definitely. Would I forego my trips down to Colonial and Mills? Definitely not.

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