Loan Hua, an environmental chemist by day, opened a pool hall in Columbia City earlier this year. She didn’t hesitate to turn half the space into Watercress Vietnamese Bistro when she realized there was room. The pool-hall half was packed at 2 p.m. when I stopped by. In the restaurant, a woman who had clearly eaten there before chatted with the staff and a family sharing plates of appetizers. The music playing sounded like Vietnamese Kate Bush. A revolving gold lamp made of coins on the bar was a gift from a friend of Loan’s, to bring luck and prosperity. Mirrors and vases of ornamental grass surround the bar and its array of wines.
Watercress’s chef, who recently moved from Vietnam, developed the menu based on dishes Loan and her family eat at home. Several incorporate the restaurant’s leafy namesake, like watercress beef salad, but I opted for the vegetarian sizzling crepe. The tofu, mushroom, and bean sprout stuffed crepe was fried to a golden crisp and wreathed in fresh lettuce, basil, and mint. The way to eat this crepe is by breaking it into pieces, wrapping them in lettuce and herbs, and then dipping these bundles in a lightly salty soy-sauce concoction. “It is photo-worthy!” said the talkative customer when she noticed me snapping its picture.