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.
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."