A North Dakota Inspired Review – 86 of 365

Definitely Not Olive Garden

Perhaps by now you’ve read the March 7, 2012 review gone viral of the first Olive Garden to open in Grand Forks, North Dakota.   An elderly woman named Marylin Hagerty at the Grand Forks Herald is a food critic who seems to believe this place foisting pasta on the good folks of North Dakota is the second coming of some Italian food deity.  Olive Garden?  Really?  Let’s sit her down at a street food stand in a back alley of Saigon and scare the pants off her with some down and dirty cuisine.  Someone buy her a ticket please over here now!

I’ve taken her review verbatim and compared it to one of my favorite Vietnamese “pastas” served in a neighborhood street food joint.  Here you go, Marylin…Welcome to a new world definitely not your Grand Forks Olive Garden…

After a lengthy wait for Olive Garden to open in Grand Forks, the lines were long in February. The novelty is slowly wearing off, but the steady following attests the warm welcome.

After a delay in opening today for reasons only known to her, the barbecue beef noodle lady finally fired up her grill out on the sidewalk at #113/14 in the alleyway behind the highrise Manor Apartments.  The novelty of cheating stomach maladies to feast on barbecue meat and noodles never wears off and a steady clientele keeps her in business.

My first visit to Olive Garden was during midafternoon, so I could be sure to get in. After a late breakfast, I figured a late lunch would be fashionable.

My first visit to this alleyway stand was early morning so I could be sure to get it fresh.  After a certain sun drenched incubation period, food can potentially seek revenge on stomachs, and time spent with the porcelain god would certainly not be fashionable.

The place is impressive. It’s fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway. There is seating for those who are waiting.

The place is scary.  It’s fashioned in vintage Saigon street food style set out in the dirty sidewalk with a view of her concrete bunker like building.   The only seating is a couple of tiny plastic stools surrounding her food preparation station just inches from motorbike traffic careening past.

My booth was near the kitchen, and I watched the waiters in white shirts, ties, black trousers and aprons adorned with gold-colored towels. They were busy at midday, punching in orders and carrying out bread and pasta.

My tiny plastic squat stool shrouded in greasy smoke from the grill was in her “kitchen,” and I marveled at her high fashion Vietnamese ensemble of garish blue print pajamas.  She was busy this morning slinging grilled meats and bowls of noodles all over her tiny workspace.

It had been a few years since I ate at the older Olive Garden in Fargo, so I studied the two manageable menus offering appetizers, soups and salads, grilled sandwiches, pizza, classic dishes, chicken and seafood and filled pastas.

It had been two days since I last ate at her one location chain in the alley, so I felt no need to study the wall menu listing only three choices:  crab noodle soup, barbecue meat on broken rice, or barbecue meat on rice vermicelli noodles.

At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water.

Since my version of spoken Vietnamese leaves much to be desired, I just sat down and prayed at length for the best.  She pointed to the bun thit nhuong, and I went with that.  I definitely won’t be drinking any e. coli based tap water beverages at her little stand though.

She first brought me the familiar Olive Garden salad bowl with crisp greens, peppers, onion rings and yes — several black olives. Along with it came a plate with two long, warm breadsticks.

She first handed me the familiar bowl of nuoc cham and yes — it was properly sweetened.  Along with it came mouth searing and gut scorching hot pepper sauce.

The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese.

The bun thit nhuong ($1) was warm and familiar on an exceptionally hot and humid day.  The portion was just right.  My cook was ready with slices of lime and hot chili peppers.

As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges. There are several dining areas with arched doorways. And there is a fireplace that adds warmth to the decor.

As I ate, I noticed old motorbike parts and piles of plastic water bottles and cardboard littering the building behind her.  A rusted out gate separates her doorway from the street.  And her grill adds even more warmth to an already sun toasted dining area.

Olive Garden has an attractive bar area to the right of the entryway. The restaurant has a full liquor license and a wine list offering a wide selection to complement Italian meals. Nonalcoholic beverages include coolers, specialty coffees and hot teas.

This food stand epitomizes the unattractive grit of an alley food shop.  Though no liquor or beer is sold, this being Vietnam, anyone can crack open an adult beverage and imbibe in public.   Nonalcoholic beverages include soda and tea.

On a hot summer day, I will try the raspberry lemonade that was recommended.

On another of Saigon’s sultry days I will try the grilled pork over broken rice she pointed to on the menu.

There’s a homemade soup, salad and breadstick lunch available until 4 p.m. daily for $6.95.

There are only three choices on the menu and only she knows what hours she keeps.

An olive branch on menu items signified low-fat entrees. There is a Garden Fare Nutrition Guide available for customers seeking gluten-free food. And for those with food allergies, Olive Garden has an Allergen Information Guide.

Nothing this lady sells is low fat.   The only nutritional information available is that it tastes good going down.  Customers with food allergies need to move on.  Peanuts are gladly served crushed atop the barbecue entrees.

All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here.

All in all, this is one of the less dirty choices lining the alley.  It attracts locals and the occasional stray westerner seeking an adventure meal.

Olive Garden is part of the Darden chain of restaurants that also operates Red Lobster. There are about 700 restaurants, including four Olive Gardens in North Dakota’s major cities.

This location is presumably her one and only table and grill as far as I know.  The immediate neighborhood has several women selling the same food, but hers is the best.

Olive Garden has gained a following since 1982 with its ample portions and relaxed ambience. It’s known for its classic lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo and chicken Parmigiana.

This lady’s battered food stand looks like it’s garnered a following since once upon a time with its right size portions and authentic ambience.  It’s known for Saigon street food specialties such as barbecued meats.


My inspiration:


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Vietnamese Food

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: