On the meatier side, the tasty "Shaking Beef" offers garlic-marinated steak cubes, grilled with onion and scallion slices (like an unskewered kebab), with salad vegetables. Beef with pineapple matches beef slices with pineapple chunks, cilantro, celery tops, and near-raw tomato slices. "I'm a little disappointed with this," said my partner. "Since the dish is stir-fried, the flavors stay strangers to each other." The next day, however, even he had to admit that, after a night's rest in the fridge, the tastes had harmonized. (Doggie bags are a great invention!)
Strangely enough, the "Le Bambou Specialties" list included both the weakest and strongest dishes sampled. Thumbs way up for "Lacqué Duck" (vit quay) -- half a large duck, easily enough to feed two with no other entrée. It resembles Cantonese "barbecued duck" with its glossy, soy-rubbed skin and sweet glaze -- but unlike most Chinese takeout duck, it's not swamped with MSG. It arrives with a heap of cooked onions and scallions and a pristine au jus sauce.
The darker side of the house specials includes "Clay Pot Rice" -- a starchy mixture containing an interesting array of ingredients cooked nearly dry. The Cornish game hens "Le Bambou" were also dry from reheating. While many other Vietnamese restaurants rub the birds with aromatic five-spice powder, Le Bambou eschews this Chinese flavoring. (Apparently, Del Mar folk prefer it so; owner Andy Do tells me that it's a top-selling item.) The combination fried rice "Le Bambou" proved to be an ordinary, clumpy mixture of rice and protein bits mediated by scrambled egg. "Even I can cook this," said Sam. "It's the same as what you might make at home, using yesterday's rice and leftovers."
There are several fruity desserts, but the appetizer and entrée portions are so generous, we couldn't handle more food. The charming wine list includes numerous French bottlings at merciful markups, including several serious reds and a deliciously fruity Trimbach Alsatian Gewürztraminer that's the perfect quaff with Southeast Asian food. ("That's what I drink myself," says Mr. Do.) A tasty Pouilly-Fumé proved a drier but still appetizing alternative. There are plenty of California bottlings, too -- but the fruity white Frenchies are obviously so much fun with this cuisine. And for a true taste of old Saigon, beer lovers can opt for 33 Beer, a Vietnamese brand that even beer-haters like me can enjoy: It's made for the tropics, to accompany a tropical cuisine.
Over the years, San Diego has gained scores of newer Vietnamese eateries serving pho and other tasty peasant dishes. I love a good pho, but I miss the elegant cuisine of decadent, sophisticated Saigon that I learned to love up north. When the Reader was doing annual "bests" issues, Le Bambou won the reader poll for best Vietnamese cuisine every year from 1996 onward. Here's another vote.
ABOUT LE BAMBOU
Owner Andy Do didn't set out to be a restaurateur. "I was a pilot in the South Vietnamese air force. When Saigon fell in 1975, we had to leave. We had relatives living in San Diego, studying at UCSD. They said, 'Come to San Diego -- nice weather, everybody's friendly.' So we came, and they were right about everything.
"I thought about becoming a pilot again here, but my wife didn't want me to. She thought it was too dangerous. I had to find some other way to make a living. My wife had a good background in cooking -- her mother taught her. She's from the north, where women are very good cooks. So when she was cooking for the family, for friends, everyone said, 'Why don't you open a restaurant?' In Saigon, I used to eat in restaurants a lot, so she cooked a lot of things for me, I tasted them and told her which ones were good enough to serve in a restaurant." I asked whether there's much French influence on their food. "Yes, naturally, French food had a strong influence on Vietnamese cooking. Our food is a blend of Asian and French.
"In 1977, we opened Le Bambou in East San Diego. It was the first Vietnamese restaurant here. In 1987 we moved it to Del Mar. It is still our family's restaurant. My wife still cooks here. We have six children, from 21 to 40 years old, and three or sometimes four of them work here. They're learning to cook, so perhaps they will eventually take over."
He and his wife have had to adapt their cuisine not only to American tastes but to Del Mar tastes in particular. For instance, he can't use ground beef. "It's too fatty, and our customers don't want fat. When people are rich, they worry about their health -- they want to live a very long time." They've also had to back way down on the heat of their spicy dishes. "We always ask how hot people want it, on a scale of 1 to 10. But when Americans ask for 'very spicy,' we still give them a 5. Me? When I eat, it's a 10 -- or a 15."