Cafe Society

Bowled Over

Get three women together--two married with children and one completely unencumbered--for dinner and drinks, and it's like a Vietnamese order-by-numbers meal: You never know what the heck's gonna come out.

Luckily, our trio was throwing the dice at Saigon Bowl, a two-year-old restaurant occupying a space in the Far East Center that's changed hands several times over the past decade. Saigon Bowl is decorated with the same varying degrees of pinkness--it's a little like sitting inside a tuft of cotton candy--and the same large, overstocked fish tank that marked its predecessors, but it features one important difference: Even if you're not quite certain what the exact preparations of the dishes will be, the quality of the food is a sure bet.

Since the English interpretations on Asian-eatery menus rarely involve more than "seafood in spicy sauce" (even though the Vietnamese do bien xao sa ot, for example, actually translates to "seafood sauteed lemongrass chile peppers"), ordering often feels like a game of culinary roulette: What will I land this time?

For that matter, the three of us decided, it's not all that different with men. If you feel lucky, you may get lucky. But before you gamble, it's useful to study the odds--hands, we agreed, seem to be a good indication of what a player's hiding.

Since Vietnamese food usually requires much less emotional commitment than a relationship (although it's often more satisfying), it was easier to take chances here. And we were amply rewarded at Saigon Bowl from the very start with a sizzling pancake, or banh xeo ($4.95), that was the healthiest take on an omelette you'll ever find. The crepe-like pancake, made from turmeric-seasoned flour mixed with coconut milk, was crammed with chopped scallions, shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, and had been pan-fried until the exterior sported a thin, brittle shell. And then there were the fat, tight spring rolls (two for $2.50) stuffed with shrimp, pork, vermicelli and mint, the allotment of each ingredient so balanced that nothing overpowered anything else. These well-assembled rolls came with nuoc tuong, a hoisin-based dipping sauce; Saigon Bowl added the optional shredded carrots and chopped roasted peanuts that give the sauce an extra layer of flavor.

An order of egg rolls ($4.95 for six) arrived with an impeccable nuoc cham, the ubiquitous Vietnamese condiment made from Asian fish sauce (called nuoc mam), chiles, lime juice, sugar and garlic. The perfect little logs glowed with a light sheen of oil and boasted the kind of crunchy, golden-brown exterior (brushing the wrapper with sugar water is the secret to that, by the way) that satisfies your brain's destructive desire to crush something delicious between your teeth.

Those same impulses must be connected to the hankering we had to rip into the tiny legs of amphibians--or maybe it's just that, being power women, we're so used to eating men for lunch that an order seemed fitting. Whatever the reason, we got a kick out of the ech xao oan ($9.95), sauteed frogs' legs in a coconut-laced curry sauce, with mushrooms, scallions, bean thread and a lot of carrots. The limbs were limber, soft and meaty: clearly cooked quickly, as is necessary to keep the flesh from toughening. In addition to coconut, the leg-licking sauce included lemongrass, onions and curry powder, as well as a faint hint of bay leaf and the quintessential Vietnamese seasoning mix of sugar, salt and pepper.

But frogs' legs are one thing, and "stinky squid" is quite another. Since one of our party is married to a Vietnamese gentleman, she's very familiar with that country's cuisine, and she was immediately attracted to the muc xao mam ruoc ($7.95), which turned out to be neatly trimmed cephalopods sauteed in shrimp paste. Before the waiter took our order, though, our friend predicted that he would try to talk her out of it. Sure enough, the name of the dish--uttered in pretty good Vietnamese--was no sooner out of her mouth than the waiter replied, "Ohhhh, no. Are you sure?" She was. And within minutes, we were sure that this was one of the best Vietnamese dishes we'd ever tasted. The squid dish wasn't nearly as stinky as we'd feared, and the sauce, while not as punched up by briny shrimp paste as the name indicates, was strongly seasoned and sparked by plenty of lemongrass and black pepper.

The pho ($3.95 for a small) was less exotic but no less appetizing: tender slips of beef, semi-crisp bean sprouts, scallions and carrots, along with the usual overabundance of noodles, twirled about in a remarkably flavorful broth. It had the fortifying quality pho is supposed to have, and then some--which was good, since by the end of our meal, the three of us had finished the exhausting task of comparing the hand sizes of every male we knew. We then divvied up the world among us and headed home--two of us to our husbands and one to some fun place women with husbands never get to go.

When I returned for a huge to-go order, it was just me and two flirty waitboys. The one who took my order asked if I would like to go back to Vietnam with him, which might have been flattering if 1) I weren't positive that he asks every American girl that, and 2) he hadn't had small hands. Instead, I took my order and began devouring it before the car was even moving. For starters, I'd gone with more of the excellent egg rolls and muc rang muoi ($5.95), another squid dish. This time the squid wasn't stinky in the slightest--in fact, it was the Vietnamese version of fried calamari (which, for your information, is about to become hugely popular, since everyone in New York and L.A. has it on their menus), an addictive pile of squid rings lightly coated with breadcrumbs, then fried, squirted with lemon and nicely salted and peppered.

The judicious use of spices is what sets Saigon Bowl apart from lazier Vietnamese spots, and nowhere was this more evident than in the nem nuong ($7.95), golf-ball-sized pork meatballs that had been infiltrated by garlic, sugar, black pepper and a hint of ginger. The meatballs came with banh trang (rice-paper wrappers), vermicelli, bean sprouts, shredded carrots and fresh mint and cilantro; you're supposed to make a sort of Asian burrito with as many ingredients as desired and then dip it in nuoc cham.

The aforementioned do bien xao sa ot ($10.95)--remember, it's seafood sauteed lemongrass chile peppers--offered a harmonic blend of red chile-pepper flakes and sweet meats from the sea: scallops, shrimp, squid and some beautiful green-lip mussels. Green peppers and onions, as well as many visible bits of minced garlic, also lent their flavors to the sauce, and the portion was just right for the price.

But it wasn't just the elaborate dishes that Saigon Bowl did well. Even the simple dau hu xao nam dong co ($7.25)--yeah, I know, the name doesn't sound so simple--from the vegetarian roster was superb. Rectangles of tofu had been stir-fried with black mushrooms (the nam dong co of the name) in the mushrooms' liquid until golden, with a bit of garlic and a touch of ginger. Barely embellished, the two main ingredients had been left to stand on their own.

That prudent simplicity is the hallmark of true Vietnamese cooking. And Saigon Bowl's devotion to authenticity akes it one of the best Vietnamese eateries in town, hands down.

Big ones.

Saigon Bowl, 333 South Federal Boulevard, 935-3742. Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.