By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
As we pull into the parking lot, I see the sign for live entertainment, Saturdays from nine until one in the morning. I find live music in a restaurant distracting, and say so as if after the years we've spent together -- nearly all of them described by the arcs of various meals -- Laura wouldn't already know this.
"I know," she says. "Good thing this isn't a Saturday, then, isn't it?"
We park the car. Vietnam House was once Pantuso's, an Italian restaurant in a building that looks like some kind of mountain villa, with a vaulted roof, a wraparound wooden porch, ponds, and an artificial stream and water wheel. Then one day it suddenly became Vietnam House. We're here now because we wanted something new and Vietnamese and different, three things that anyone in this neighborhood is guaranteed to find as long as they they're willing to look around.
Vietnamese egg rolls: $4.50
Appetizer platter: $29.95
Shrimp paste: $14.95
Pho dac biet (with everything): $7.95
Chicken rice soup: $6.95
Tamarind crab: $29.95
Curry chicken: $8.95
In the breezeway is a picture of the entertainer who will be performing Saturday, along with Vietnamese words that I can't translate but assume are the names of songs, exhortations to come early, and hype like "fresh from two weeks at the Copa Room at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas..."
"That's a girl," I say, pointing to the picture with some authority, tapping my finger against it and scouting the sight lines from the hostess stand to see if I can steal it when no one's looking.
"He's got a mustache, Jay. That's a man."
"I see the mustache, but that's a girl." I am sure of it. The entertainer seems to be a young female-to-male Asian transsexual, unconvincing as a toaster made to look like a speedboat. The Fu Manchu and tiny smudge of a soul patch appear painted on, although the shaggy mane of scrofulous George Harrison Beatle hair lends the subject a certain, weird rock-star air. I'm impressed by the strangeness of it, the realization of an androgynous ideal attempted by generations of Ziggy Stardusts and Gary Numans and Marilyn Mansons.
We're seated near a stage that would be the pride of any small high school, any community theater with more ambition than budget. It takes up about a third of the substantial main floor, stretching out like a broad tongue from the back wall and already set with the amps, instruments and paraphernalia of a backing band: lights, lasers, programmable spots and a disco ball. A neon-colored picture of Vietnam hangs on the wall behind the stage, curled like some strange internal organ and surrounded by stars, music notes and the full name of the place -- Vietnam House Restaurant & Club -- spelled out with sparkles and glitter paint.
The stage is dark and the restaurant not even half full, but the space is warm and friendly and, in a twisting of normal physics, seems less lonely than it should for being so big and dim and underpopulated. Our waiter has a big smile and a drooping curtain of Tokyo-pop hair that hangs over one eye. He can't really come through with any recommendations for dinner, but he speaks enough English to take orders with confidence, to help me when I mangle my Vietnamese pronunciations and to mediate an argument between Laura and me (the same argument we've been having since the day we moved in together) over the proper way to operate a pair of chopsticks. She looks dignified and elegant with hers. I look like a retarded lobster snapping away with one atrophied claw.
The menu is huge, a sweeping expanse of food that runs from the most common pho bo vien and noodle bowls to goat fire-pot soup and tofu in basil-leaf sauce. There are twelve ways to ask for pork spare ribs and 26 fish dishes -- not counting the "special" fish dishes, the fish soups and fish with rice. The staff makes egg creams, salty lemonade, and milkshakes from longan, jackfruit (yogurty-sweet but strung with crystals of ice), avocado and durian. You can smell the durian shake from across the restaurant; it stinks like a corpse inexpertly interred beneath the floorboards, but tastes like a fine melon custard.
Our waiter brings appetizers, enough for ten people: crisp Vietnamese egg rolls chopped in half and served with rice noodles and lettuce leaves; grilled shrimp curled into tight commas; shrimp balls that look like fat, pink cocktail wieners and squeak when I bite them; shrimp-paste sandwiches between delicate leaves of rice paper; grilled pork and beef and noodles and sauces, and stiff rounds of rice paper that are used to wrap everything after they've soaked and softened in the pot of hot water set at the center of the table. Laura and I are both congenitally incapable of making rice-paper rolls that look like anything other than sticky, limp kindergarten art projects, but these taste fantastic because what's inside is fantastic.
I eat pho with everything: shaved rare beef, well-done beef, tendon, sliced discs of dense meatball like coins made of meat, and tripe done in the Vietnamese style -- cut thinly across the honeycomb grain so that each piece looks like a cross-section of sea anemone waving in the broth. This is a Southern pho, pale and light but incredibly filling, without the heavy-handed touches of star anise or too much fat. The side plate of fixings is like a miniature jungle of basil trees and limes that grow already sliced. I ignore the jalapeños and the stuff that looks like sawgrass and the basil stems, bruising just the leaves into the bowl for a hot shock of that deep-green flavor. And then I add Sriracha red-chile sauce and a little of the nuoc mam fish sauce, but do it on the sly because I've been told this is tantamount to putting ketchup on my Rice Krispies -- boorish and uncouth.