In case you haven't yet grasped the restaurant density along this stretch of Federal, you only need to make a quick -- if dangerous -- sprint across the street from three of the best noodle shops in town to stand panting at the entrance to another strip mall that houses DaLat Vietnamese Cuisine and Tacos y Salsas -- which makes a total of four distinct ethnic cuisines (Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Mexican) in five eateries. And I can still see a couple of other Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants in either direction if I stand on my toes. Vietnamese certainly dominates this part of the boulevard, but there's enough variety among even these to keep me on my toes.
DaLat, like many of the other tiny joints shoehorned into strip malls along Federal, is a little cluttered, but somehow still inviting. Asian knickknacks vie for space with audio/visual equipment (for the live music the restaurant hosts), cardboard boxes and tray tables of various heights groaning with menus, glassware and other restaurant equipment. And like many of its west-side counterparts, DaLat was also empty when we walked in. We had the restaurant and the waiter to ourselves for a few minutes until another couple entered, and it turned out they were just waiting for a cab. Still, the waiter was attentive to them, too, and managed to sell them beers and appetizers while the young woman unloaded the entire contents of her purse -- including a curling iron -- onto their table and gave directions to a cabbie over the phone. ("We're at a Chinese restaurant next to Tacos y Salsas.") Many restaurateurs would have turned the young couple away, but our patient and persistent waiter managed to get them to spend a few dollars, even if they had no idea what they were eating.
More customers came in as we waited for our food, filling the cavernous silence with a little clatter and buzz. DaLat is well known for its extensive menu, with entire sections devoted to exotic meats and seafood: Eel, venison, snails and goat each has its own list of distinct dishes, preparations and sauces. A large group of adventurous eaters could no doubt order up a unique and entertaining feast to keep them talking for days. But early in the week and with only the two of us, we decided to stick with a few recommended house favorites and daily specials.
As we thumbed through the menu, the waiter overheard us talking about some of our favorite Vietnamese dishes and said he'd see if the kitchen could re-create them based on our descriptions. Despite this generous offer, we opted for a cold fish salad from the daily special board, a beef dish in lemon sauce, and a platter of steamed clams with mint and ginger.
The fish in the salad was a shredded and chilled white fish lightly marinated and tossed with thin slices of raw onion and shards of raw galangal, then dusted with crunchy toasted rice powder. The plate included lettuce and herbs for making wraps to dip in a fiery peanut sauce. I loved the sharp, medicinal accent of the galangal against the mild fish, especially when combined with the rich and spicy sauce. Amy's beef dish also came in the form of a salad, with unruly layers of lettuce, cucumber, tomato, shiso and basil burying what turned out to be an ample pile of shaved rare roast beef -- a refreshing, if simple, summer salad for a hot evening.
The clams -- fat-bellied and on the half-shell -- came with a powerfully complex sauce of minced red chiles, fish sauce, ginger and pungent shreds of lime peel. After dousing each of the clams, I still had enough of the sauce to take a few straight spoonfuls of the addictively racy mixture. I had to ask the waiter about the tangle of herbs that topped the dish; he explained that it was rau ram -- also known as Vietnamese mint -- which had a flavor closer to basil than mint. A couple of 33 Export beers tamed the flavors between bites and brought out the briny flavor of the tender clams.
The waiter -- and even the chef, who at one point came out to talk about our order -- treated us like regulars. Subtle up-sells (like a wacky dessert that resembled Mexican horchata poured over diced jello) seemed like simple suggestions to help us enjoy our meal more rather than attempts to inflate the bill. If I didn't want spring rolls, it was no big deal.
If Federal Boulevard is just a close-knit neighborhood, it's comforting that some of its denizens know what being a neighbor means. You never know when you'll run into someone again or when you'll have another chance to make a good impression. A warm smile and a genuine desire to share knowledge are as important as a sauce bursting with wild flavors. The cultural diversity of this neighborhood sometimes makes communication difficult, but good food from people who want you to leave happy can help bridge the barriers.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.