2634 Del Mar Heights Road, Del Mar
Distant wars, nearby tables: Thirty years ago, North Vietnam conquered Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam. When the U.S. withdrew in '72, many professionals and prosperous businesspeople came to the U.S. Members of the South Vietnamese military, on the other hand, couldn't desert their posts. But once Saigon fell, it was too dangerous for them to stay, and they, too, fled. San Francisco saw the first waves of both sets of immigrants. The first group opened several casual Vietnamese eateries. The last-minute military migrants founded top-notch restaurants: A former general opened the first serious Vietnamese dinner house in the Bay Area, and an air force navigator owns another. One man settled in Southern California -- a pilot. He opened our own Le Bambou, the first Vietnamese restaurant in San Diego, and the best I've tried here.
Le Bambou's charm begins with its ambiance. Live bamboo plants grow from glass-bricked dividing walls. Each white-clothed table bears a vase of fresh flowers, often pink and yellow roses from the owners' home garden. The chic hostess, one of the owners' daughters, is swift, fluent in English, and alert to diners' needs. She even memorizes the longest orders and helps newbies learn Vietnamese eating customs.
After a scouting visit, I lassoed four friends who were new to this cuisine: world travelers Keith and Cheryl (mom to a rug rat) and regulars Sam and the Lynnester. The appetizers arrived, each platter laden with a heap of lettuce leaves, fresh mint and cilantro, and raw veggies (bean sprouts, julienned carrots, sliced tomatoes, and/or sliced cukes), with minor variations from plate to plate. Most included at least one dipping sauce in a bowl on the side, and some also came with a covered container filled with warm, translucent rice-paper crêpes.
I told my friends that these are not mere decorations. The appetizers are interactive -- you get to play with them. (And, to the Vietnamese, this means that you'll appreciate them more keenly.) Whatever the dish -- be it Imperial Rolls or rolled beef fillets or grilled shrimp -- if it comes with greens, "wrap" it. Place the stuff on a lettuce leaf, add herbs, veggies, dip to your own preferences, and roll it all up. (If rice crêpes come with the dish, you set the lettuce leaf atop one of those first. Be sure to close the container again, to keep the remaining crêpes from hardening.) Then take the package in hand and get up close and personal with your vittles. By the time the entrées arrived, Cheryl had swiped one of her toddler's lettuce leaves, explaining, "Already, I like the appetizers better. You get to roll everything up and eat with your fingers. Going back to a fork is boring."
There are a dozen choices on the appetizer menu, and another two on the list of ten house specialties. An appetizer of ground shrimp grilled on sugarcane is the best version I've tasted since leaving San Francisco. The dish originated as a delicacy from the old royal palace at Hué (in the center of the country), but at too many local restaurants it has the plebeian texture of bubble gum. Here, it's a tender, sweet-flavored shrimp-cake. It's served already separated from the spent sugarcane that flavors it and comes with rice-paper crêpes, greenery, and a spicy peanut sauce that's complex and tangy, with an almost imperceptible bass note of nuoc mam Vietnamese fish sauce.
Among the restaurant's pleasures are such rarely found treasures as "Golden Coins" -- patties mingling barbecued ground shrimp and pork, shaped into sausages and sliced into thin ovals. Imperial Rolls have deep-fried flour-batter wrappers that are thinner than egg rolls, thicker than spring rolls. We loved them with a pork and vegetable stuffing but reveled in an unusual seafood variation featuring small whole shrimp, minced pork, bulk crabmeat, and cabbage threads. The dip for both is nuoc cham, a sweet and peppery sauce (again based on the fish sauce, which you can't really taste).
"Stuffed Squid" are baby calamari filled with ground shrimp, pork, chicken, mushrooms, onions, and bean threads, sparked with black pepper. They're flash-fried until crunchy and served halved lengthwise, swathed in a dark, sweet, smoky sauce (a sort of Vietnamese barbecue sauce), along with the usual greenery. "The stuffing is like a Parisian pâté made from Asian ingredients," said Lynne. That was hardly surprising, given France's long occupation of Indochina. Soft-shell crabs, the most debatable (and expensive) of the appetizers, offered molting crustaceans with exceptionally fragile shells. Their cornstarch coating seemed to guzzle up the canola frying oil. They arrived in a flurry of neutral-tasting bulk crabmeat, caramelized onions, and greens, with a side dish of tangy, mysteriously purple sauce.
Our choice of soup wasn't optimal. The menu described Suông as "special prepared shrimp with rice noodles in tangy chicken broth." It sounded so exotic, we had to try it. The shrimp's specialness? They were ground and reassembled into Cheetos-shaped squiggles. So far, so good, but the broth wasn't tangy. Instead, it had a squeak-in-the-teeth sweetness, borne of sugar and (oddly) turnips. A dash from the table ramekin of Asian red chili sauce improved the balance, but next time I'll choose the spicy shrimp soup.
The menu divides entrées into Vegetarian, Beef, Chicken, and Seafood categories. (Although pork is used in many appetizers, it doesn't get an entrée category to itself.) More entrées appear on the "Le Bambou Specialties" list. Even if eating with a fork is less fun, the best of the main dishes soon won everyone over. Scallops in tamarind sauce featured sautéed Asian bay scallops surrounded by a sweet-tangy sauce. "This is really a sophisticated flavor," said traveling man Keith, who'd chosen this dish.
The superstar entrée was "Star of the Sea Curry." Southeast Asian curries bear no relationship to Indian curries, but those culture-blind European imperialists picked up the Hindi word (gari), mispronounced and misspelled it, and spread it all over Asia as a catch-all term for any piquant stew. The seafood component in the Star Curry includes shrimp, hatch-cut calamari, and scallops, with fresh snow peas for vegetal sweetness. The silky coconut-cream sauce tingles with touches of chili, lemongrass, and cilantro. The more we ate, the more we loved it. But as in most Asian restaurants, the hotness of your curry defaults to perceived ethnicity. A pale face automatically gets you a "two" on a spiciness scale of ten. If you want a hotter dish, you will have to ask (or beg) for it when you order. In emergencies, however, there's always that ramekin of red chili sauce.