Saigon Bowl (Dong Khanh) Restaurant in the Far East Center represents not only one of the city's best, but possibly the last Vietnamese restaurant on my quest for good food along Federal Boulevard. North of here, tacos, tortas and burritos make a resurgence, along with American burger joints, steakhouses and diners. I've eaten at so many Vietnamese places lately that I'm beginning to miss the call of the corn tortilla, but until I cross Alameda, I'm still going to wallow in the bright and fresh mounds of herbs; the deep, complex broths and sauces; and the nearly infinite variety possible in the simple combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy that makes Vietnamese cuisine profoundly sophisticated while still grounded in humble roots.
Take, for example, a cold duck and cabbage salad mounded in defiance of gravity and laced with basil and a few other crunchy salad standards (like -- in my mind -- completely useless slivers of cucumber). But deeply caramelized, melting bits of onion lurked beneath a layer of chopped peanuts, waiting to add French flavors of the deglazed sauté pan that turned the dish suddenly homey thanks to the onion's affinity for duck, that porkiest of birds. The dressing -- sweet and fishy -- coated my fingers as it soaked into the puffed rice crackers I used to build mini duck salad tostadas.Despite several months of practice rolling various food items into lettuce leaves, my wife and I still have less dexterity than the average Vietnamese toddler, who by three or four years of age can probably roll tight cigars of noodle, pickled carrot, cilantro and the main item -- egg rolls, banh khot, grilled shrimp paste or what have you -- into what for me are wholly intractable lettuce leaves that always tear and split in just the wrong way. We selected grilled shrimp wrapped in thin slices of marinated beef as the star of our disheveled wraps. Perfectly charred but still tender from the marinade, the wrapped shrimp had so much savory character that they couldn't be defeated by my inept manhandling. I finally managed one passable roll that didn't unravel in my death grip or in my attempts to dip it in the bowl of delicately spiced nuoc cham. Even the simple bi cuon spring rolls provided a curious combination of shredded pork skin and toasted rice powder. The texture of the rubbery strands of skin coated in crunchy rice dust has no analogy in Western cooking. But texture aside, the flavors came together like fresh sausage: mildly meaty, toasty and earthy, rather than vivid with the garden freshness of typical spring rolls stuffed with lettuce, herbs and shrimp.