"Sweetie," Linda said, "I would never do that. I would never recommend a dish just because I think it would have more appeal to Americans."
That's not something you hear at many ethnic restaurants, but Linda is no ordinary server. She works at the latest Vietnamese restaurant to become popular with the city's foodies, Bamboo Grill and Hot Pot (4646 Buford Highway, 678-580-1727). Linda knows the five-page menu in-depth and, despite apparently being Vietnamese, has a strong dose of classic Southern waitress in her demeanor. I haven't been called "sweetie" so many times since I haunted the Majestic Diner during late nights 25 years ago.
There is a lot to experience on the menu at Bamboo Grill, but there are a few dishes regarded as specialties. As it happens, they are labor-intensive for the diner, most notably, the hot pot or lau. There are three hot pots available at the restaurant, but Linda insisted that Wayne, our friend Rose and I order the lau Thailand. I got concerned that we were going to be eating a Vietnamese version of tom yum soup. Linda assured me that the dish, although definitely featuring Thai ingredients, was thoroughly Vietnamese. She gave me a quick description of regional influences in Vietnamese cooking, concluding with the assertion, "Even if it says 'lau Thailand,' it's very Vietnamese." Indeed, the hot pot itself originated in China, I believe, and the complexity of the flavor depends on whether you're in the more straightforward North or the herb-loving South. Vietnamese cuisine is famously fusionesque.
The chicken-based broth, redolent of tom yum seasonings, came to the table in a huge pot – even though it was supposedly only for two – with a gas flame that Linda turned up to high. She instructed us to deposit a (huge) sampling of seafood and a (huge) number of herbs and veggies (such as banana blossoms) in the pot, which we extracted quickly and ate with rice noodles.
We had no idea that this would be such a large quantity and had already consumed a plate of rice paper rolls containing grilled pork, cigarette-thin spring rolls, mint, cucumber, shrimp and herbs.
But, wait, there's more.
There was no way I was leaving the restaurant without trying one of the clay pot dishes. For reasons I don't understand, these are relatively hard to find in our city. Years ago, there was a Vietnamese restaurant on Lenox Road (where Moto Bistro is located now) where I became addicted to these. The pots include meats cooked until caramelized in sweet-salty fish sauce. Rice typically is also cooked in the pot and likewise becomes caramelized – to the degree that the rice lining the pot is deliciously crunchy.
Linda recommended that we try the seafood and rice clay pot with fresh vegetables (no. 28 on the menu and staggeringly inexpensive at $7.50). Rose and I ended up in a virtual fork fight for the last of the rice.
Let me reiterate that this was a huge meal for three people (and cost only $42 total). I gave out well before my determined dining companions. Wayne believes that not cleaning your plate, no matter the risk of explosion, is tantamount to laughing at starving people on their death beds.
He and I returned a week later and had a second meal just as good as the first. Linda insisted we undertake another do-it-yourself meal – basically making our own rice-paper wraps from (another huge) assortment of grilled beef, pork, chicken and shrimp, along with herbs, lettuce, star fruit and marinated daikon and carrots. We've had this same dish at nearby Chateau de Saigon several times and I confess I find the ritual a bit tedious, even though the results are delicious.
Our second dish was off the menu. I told Linda that I loved Chateau de Saigon's crunchy rice dishes. The restaurant brings a plate-sized portion of the rice and you order the toppings of your choice.
Linda stiffened a bit when I asked about this. She explained that the rice should properly be made in a clay pot. "We don't do it that way," she said. I said that was fine; I was just curious. The next thing I knew, she was offering to have the chef pan-fry rice and prepare a topping of mixed seafood.
"In fact," she said, "I will have him make it so that you can actually dip the rice in the seafood – Vietnamese chips and salsa."
It wasn't quite that stiff, but the rice was absolutely addictive – thicker and more formed than the rice out of a clay pot and with a greater range of texture than Chateau de Saigon's. The mixed seafood, with a piquant fish sauce, was a perfect topping. Beg them to make it for you.
It is good to see another high-quality Vietnamese restaurant with a full menu open in our city. Things have never been the same since the loss of Bien Thuy, whose owner was well known for off-the-menu dishes that I've never encountered anywhere else in town. As we were paying after our second meal at Bamboo Grill, Linda attempted to entice me with an exotic dessert of layered custards and jellies and let me know exactly what I'd be eating for an entrée when I next visited.
Hurry and go.
Here and there
It doesn't seem to matter where I eat fast Middle Eastern food, I always find Olive Bistro's (650 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-874-5336) the best. I stopped by for a quick dinner last week and had a side plate of peppery roasted eggplant and a chicken Caesar wrap. And some hummus, the city's best. And some baklava. And some falafel, also the city's best.
I also paid a visit to an old favorite – Fat Matt's Rib Shack. I'll never get used to the way they roll white bread around takeout ribs, but I do love the ribs. They are, despite the restaurant's name, low on fat, compared to many in town. I visited on a Tuesday night and couldn't get a seat inside. Apparently, the band had quite a following. The brain-rattling blues bands are half the fun here.