When you walk into the West Bank Cafe, one of Milwaukee's most fragrant and flavorful Vietnamese restaurants, be prepared to spend some time there. Not only does the cozy and casual environment lend itself to leisurely eating, but the menu -- and the wine list -- is so extensive that a delicious silence might fall over your table for a good five or 10 minutes while you decipher your cuisine cravings. And don't forget to check the chalkboard specials, often the evening's culinary gems.
West Bank's service can be another time-zapper, which in the past has been painfully slow. However, on a recent Tuesday night, one waitress handled five tables with ease and maintained an upbeat attitude, even when the one-year-old child in our group banged silverware on the metal high chair tray and littered the floor with bananas and Cheerios. (Yes, West Bank is child-friendly, although be prepared for a functional-but-decrepit high chair.)
Our group of four adults started off with "33" Export Vietnamese beers, saki and lemonade, all very satisfying. We also ordered two appetizers: fresh and delicious spring rolls and crab Rangoon that were tiny in size and hard on the edges but stuffed with a delectable cream cheese filling. Crunchy salads with a tasty tahini dressing came with two of the dinners (the tahini dressing is also available in bottles for home use), and one diner also ordered pho, a spicy, slightly-fishy soup floating noodles and pieces of medium-rare beef.
"Pho has more healing qualities than chicken noodle soup," he said between slurps.
Our only complaint was the silverware, which was slightly sticky, but luckily we had the option of disposable chopsticks.
The entrees, all of which ranged in price from $8.50 to $13.95, were fantastic. Spicy catfish in a clay pot, one of the West Bank's signature dishes, grills the fish to perfection and immerses it in a smoky, sweet black bean sauce. This dish is also available vegetarian as tofu in a clay pot. (West Bank has many vegetarian options.)
Chicken roti, also very good, includes a bed of white rice with pieces of soft chicken in a coconut and BBQ sauce. The sauce does make the chicken appear unnaturally pink, which is off-putting at first but completely acceptable after the first bite.
The spicy scallops were soft but not chewy and very plentiful, with at least a dozen smothered in a unique black bean sauce and served with white rice. And finally, the herb tofu with Creole sauce was another winner, featuring tofu, green pepper, cauliflower and spinach noodles in a spicy sauce.
All dinners are available with mild to hot seasoning. Vietnamese mild is very mild whereas hot definitely packs a punch, but isn't as red alarm as, say, Thai hot.
Unfortunately we were too stuffed for dessert, so we ordered two creamy and potent Thai coffees to share.
Even though the service was good on this particular night, we still managed to spend more than two hours in the restaurant. However, we were most impressed after we left and the waitress ran out of the restaurant with a Styrofoam container of catfish we had forgotten. When dining out, the meal is important, but it's the little things that make or break the experience.
The West Bank Cafe, 732 E. Burleigh St., is open every night of the week from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reservations accepted, call (414) 562-555. Visa and Mastercard are accepted.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.