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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cheap Eats and Outfits in Little Vietnam

One of the supreme pleasures of the Western experience is to consume with speed, convenience and efficiency. Hence the mail-order catalog, the drive-thru restaurant and, above all, the shopping mall -- that place where shoppers roam polished linoleum floors in twos and threes and whole herds, grazing at the food court.

In Moscow it is hard, if not impossible, to find an enclosed complex of stores and restaurants offering such an experience. Inevitably, my desire to shop and snack freely is thwarted by an even stronger one for thriftiness.

That was true, however, only until a recent visit to the immense warren of tiny stores and sporadic caf?s that fill the better part of a nine-story dormitory in northern Moscow. The students here are Vietnamese, as well as the merchants selling mostly inexpensive clothes near the small restaurants located on nearly every floor.

With a modest winter clothing list and an appetite heightened by scaling the building's stairs, it is easy enough to wile away an afternoon here without spending more than the price of an entree at some of Moscow's pricier restaurants. Although the food is not stellar and the ambience not particularly relaxing, it is worth a trip if only to find what is still a rare commodity in Moscow -- good, cheap, interesting food.

Start off on the third floor, in the nameless restaurant in Room 340B, where we found a waitress with an attitude and a limited command of Russian presiding over 16 seats and a small but decent menu. This isn't the place to dawdle, or engage in small talk (it made our waitress huffy) so start off right away with an order of Vietnamese Shashlik (17,000 rubles or $3.15). The gratifyingly crunchy hunks of bite-sized pork in a sour sauce, served with a plate of mung bean sprouts on a bed of lettuce, are an excellent precursor to an order of Fried Noodles with Meat and Vegetables (17,000 rubles) -- a beautiful, delicious and big plate of stir-fried beef with crisp, wiry noodles upon a layer of veggies that included fresh mustard greens and scallions. None of the food is particularly spicy, so in Room 340B -- as was the case on every floor -- each table is outfitted with painfully hot red pepper sauce.

The clientele in Room 340B was exclusively Russian, but the percentage of Vietnamese diners increased steadily as we moved toward the upper floors. Two flights up, in Room 540B's B?«n th?nh restaurant (just 20 meters from a first aid station), the patrons were all Vietnamese, and there was no written menu. The dapper waiter kept pushing bread and potatoes -- firmly resist this option, check out what the other diners are eating and just point to what looks good.

Utilizing this method, we ended up with dishes that were uniformly big, oily and filling. The fried fish plate (20,000 rubles) consisted of a fried black-skinned fresh river fish that had been fileted, cooked and placed willy nilly on a steaming mound of white rice. The presentation of the fried chicken and pork plate (20,000 rubles) was similar. We found the glazed chicken a bit dry, and the fried pork too oily. The high point here was the soup (7,000 rubles), a big, hearty, gumbo-like, cilantro-tinged, tomato-and-beef-filled concoction that hit the spot after half an hour of looking at the fifth floor's leather goods.

It was in the uppermost restaurant in Room 640B, simply called Buffet, that we felt as though we had found the most authentic Vietnamese dining experience. Our order of eight Vietnamese spring rolls (25,000 rubles) was a superb, crunchy delicacy of fresh meat and vegetables. The dozen spinach-wrapped beef nuggets (20,000 rubles) were chewy, spicy, addictive and easy to eat in one golf-ball-sized bite.

Because the appetizers here are better than in the other caf?s, it might be a good place to start a meal. Diners can also enjoy the live television broadcasts from Asia via satellite -- they ease the first-time visitor into the mood of Moscow's mini-Vietnam.

The Vietnamese caf?s are located in the Moscow Transport Engineering Institute at 20 Dobrolyubova Ulitsa. Open daily from 9 a.m. to about 7 p.m. Rubles only. Nearest metro: Dmitrovskaya.