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Of the nine countries normally referred to as Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Indonesia, and, stretching it a bit geographically but not culinarily, the Philippines), the cuisines of the first two are by far the most well-known over here. But despite far more American contact with Vietnam than with Thailand in recent times, owing both to the war and to immigration of refugees afterward, Vietnamese cuisine has never caught on as widely as Thai. True, Thai food does have a rep as the most sophisticated of all Southeast Asian cuisines -- and deservedly, a main reason being Thai cuisine's relatively seamless incorporation of influences from at least half a dozen other Eastern and Western nations.
Personally, though, I suspect a less elevated reason for Thai food's relative commercial success here: its bigger, bolder flavors (more fiercely hot chilies, more intense use of fragrant leaves and aromatic roots) make it far easier for mediocre chefs to produce; even crudely cooked Thai restaurant food can be tasty. Vietnam's more delicate dishes, in the average American-Asian eatery, are blah -- more boring than the average Ricky Martin interview.
Still, even fairly unspectacular Vietnamese food has one huge selling point, especially for those of us living in a place where it'll soon be time to get outta the AC and on to the beaches in bathing suits: It is unquestionably one of the world's healthiest and most slimming cuisines. While the Chinese favor stir-fried vegetables, Vietnamese dishes almost always are accompanied by immense amounts of raw leaf vegetables, roots, and herbs. Of Vietnam's cooked foods, many are vegetarian. Nonvegetarian specialties use much fish, because of Vietnam's long coastline and many aquaculture-friendly deltas. Meats are the leanest and are often combined with shellfish. And both cooking oils and thickeners (like cornstarch) are used in minimal amounts.
All of the above is emphasized at six-month-old Saigon Palace, though I must confess, many of my favorite dishes were the slightly sinful ones, like fried stuffed chicken wings. So packed with a savory filling of ground pork, mushroom, transparent rice vermicelli, and onion that they looked more like legs than wings, the three morsels were served with a very tasty sweet-hot chili sauce.
Also a winner was Vietnamese crêpe, a central Vietnamese dish I've had elsewhere in America, christened Happy Pancake. More of an omelet than a crêpe, the substantial egg pancake -- generously studded with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, and onion -- comes with lettuce leaves for wrapping and nuoc cham sauce for dipping your lettuce rolls. Made from Vietnam's ubiquitous nuac mam fermented fish sauce plus lime, sugar, and several spices, Saigon Palace's nuac cham is sweeter than usual -- actually, all the Palace's sauces except one spicy chili number are rather sweet.
Vegetarians will be happy to hear that Saigon spring rolls come in a vegetarian version that is just as tasty as the Palace's pork rolls. In fact since both versions were strongly seasoned and packed with meaty-textured black mushrooms, as well as vermicelli, onion, and carrot, it was difficult to tell them apart.
Crunchy Vietnamese pickled salad was a terrific accompaniment to all of the above appetizers -- kind of an Asian-spiced version of good-old Jewish-deli salad.
Among entrées, spicy stir-fried satay tofu was the standout. The use of bean curd as a meat substitute was something originally picked up from the Chinese, and since China occupied Vietnam for nearly a thousand years, there was ample time to learn how to make this essentially neutral substance, which picks up its taste from other foods, flavorful in many ways. The satay tofu is one of nine very varied tofu dishes. The texture of the fried but nearly greaseless tofu sticks was silken inside, like a light custard. The taste was rich, slightly sweet, and just hot enough to make your mouth glow for several minutes.
Other entrées were less successful. Crispy pan-fried egg noodle with mixed vegetables, for instance, did sport a large variety of vegetables, but almost half were canned rather than fresh. And the house special sauce promised on the menu appeared to be water -- or, at least, some thin liquid that was both tasteless and pointless except to turn the allegedly "crispy" noodles into soggy mush.
Grilled meat is a Vietnamese favorite, and Saigon Palace features a specialty not available in most American Vietnamese joints: tabletop grilling. The beef grill for two included an astonishing two pounds of fatless paper-thin rib-eye slices, plus mushrooms, onions, and sweet peppers for grilling; rice vermicelli and lettuce for wrapping the grilled items; and dipping sauces -- many, happily, though the menu specified only one. What the menu did not mention: "Cooked at your table" means that the raw ingredients, electric grill, and nonstick spray are brought to your table ... and then you cook, not your server. This dish is awfully labor intensive for those fond of conversing, especially if they're also fond of rare beef (which, with slices so thin, requires concentration on cooking).
Another grilled (but in the kitchen) item, caramel-peanut pork, featured very lean pork marred mostly by the same thing that mars most nonfatty pork fast-cooked: dryness. (Sometimes I wonder why I ever order any pork that is not slow-cooked in large pieces, like Cuban roast pork or Southern pit barbecue.) Additionally there was little lemon grass taste. However, the skewers' generous vegetable accompaniments (cucumber, bean sprouts, fried onion, scallion, crushed peanuts, cilantro, carrot and white radish salad, and the usual lettuce wrap), plus dipping sauces, meant no lack of interesting tastes.
Crispy salted whole red snapper with spicy lemon grass was problematic for several reasons. First, though both this item and the Palace's other whole two-pound fish dish, fried snapper with caramel Vietnamese fish sauce, were listed on the take-out menu at $17.95, our waitress informed us that this was actually the price for a one-pound fish; two-pounders were $24.95. Okay, the eat-in menu did say "seasonal."
A decidedly less understandable problem was that when our snapper arrived, its sauce had not a hint of either lemon grass taste or spiciness but was, rather, syrupy-sweet. And the fish itself tasted deep-fried, not salt-cooked. The dish tasted, in fact, exactly as one would expect fried snapper with caramel sauce to taste. This seemed such a coincidence that we asked our waitress if there'd perhaps been a misunderstanding. She returned from the kitchen with a bland smile and the following message: "The chef says to say it is the lemon grass snapper, not the caramel snapper. It is so sweet because he is so sweet!" Very cute! But not very satisfying. Well, no matter. The snapper was so overfried-to-desiccation that eating it was like gnawing on a greased Fed Ex envelope.
Sadly none of Vietnam's three- or four-dozen varieties of rice wine is available to wash the solids down, but sake is, as are some far more interesting soft drinks. "Vietnamese smoothies" are what the menu strongly touts. But I couldn't resist "grassy jelly drink" -- not nearly as horrible as it sounds, since "grassy" means tasting like cereal grain, not like your lawn, and "jelly" is really tapioca beads. Anyway, tapioca drinks are all the rage among Southern-California Asian teens. So after all that healthy food, what the heck? Live dangerously.