Dining

An unexpected delight

Lemongrass Café offers great Vietnamese food in an unassuming location

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Vermicelli with chicken and eggroll
Photo: Beverly Poppe

One might not expect Colonnade Plaza Mall, at the quiet intersection of Eastern Avenue and Pebble Road, to be a repository of good ethnic dining, but it is. This mall is already well-known for Cuban food at Havana Grill, for Jun’s, a Korean take-out with tasty food, and for the spiffy Lebanese restaurant Ali Baba. Now the excellent Lemongrass Café, the only Vietnamese restaurant in this part of the Valley, joins that good company.

The board outside the door advertises pho, a meal-in-a-bowl concoction composed of rice noodles, a rich broth and various cuts of beef, from brisket to tendon. Pho has become synonymous with this healthy Southeast Asian cuisine, which rose to prominence in this country after the end of the Vietnam War.

But Vietnamese cuisine, an amalgam of Indochinese, Chinese and French influences, is much more than just soup. Until recently, I, a Green Valley dweller, was forced to do a long march to Spring Mountain Road for some of it, whenever I got the craving for cha gio, the Vietnamese eggroll; bo luc lac, cubes of beef stir-fried with white onion; or the tour de force of our Vietnamese restaurants, bo 7 mon, literally “seven courses of beef.” (“For when,” as one of the office wits pointed out, “six just won’t do.”)

The Details

Restaurant Guide
Lemongrass Café
8820 S. Eastern Ave
463-1300
Open Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Suggested dishes: cha gio, $6.95; pho, $4.95-$7.95; bo 7 mon, $24.95 for two; che ba mau, $3.25.

Bo 7 mon, it happens, is one of the greatest uses of beef on the planet, and here, in owner Linh Stine’s restaurant, it’s one of the city’s best bargains at only $24.95 for two. It starts with an incredible beef salad, gai bo, shredded cabbage, carrot and herbs, with extra body provided by crushed peanuts and a tangy sesame-oil dressing. The beef here is slices, charcoal-grilled, tasting of a sweet marinade. The dish is pure bliss.

Next comes a rather ornate presentation: pieces of pounded rice paper in oddball-looking discs, meant to be softened in hot water in order to be used like taco shells. Raw rounds of crimson red beef, also in thin slices, can also be turned in the same water. Then stuff the beef into the rice paper, along with pickles, leafy herbs and a scary purple fermented sauce called nem, if you dare.

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Grilled sliced beef, steamed beef patties with egg and vegetables (sort of a Vietnamese-style meatloaf) and cylinders of grilled beef wrapped in betel leaves are next, followed by grilled beef sausages. At the finish, there are steamy bowls of chao bo, a porridge of beef and rice cooked until it has the consistency of Gerber’s Baby Food. You won’t be hungry a half-hour later, that’s a promise.

The menu here goes well beyond pho and the beef fest. Cha gio is a must at a good Vietnamese restaurant, and these are a good example—crunchy, cigar-shaped and dangerously hot when they first come to table. The filling uses minced pork, crab and rice noodles to create a dense, delicious treat.

For a different type of eggroll, not deep-fried, choose bi cuon, rice-paper rolls filled with vegetables and sliced pork, served with a peanut sauce.

There are so many more dishes worth trying, I wouldn’t know where to begin. One is an amazingly addictive rice plate with cubed tofu tossed in chili and lemongrass. Another is a terrific stuffed calamari, which uses a filling similar to the cha gio.

Lemongrass Café is a comfortable place. It’s housed in an all-chrome building that was once called Vegas Diner and later morphed into Asian Gourmet, the letters of which are still emblazoned near the roof, in red plastic. Sit at the nine-stool counter or in one of the beige leatherette booths, flanked by bamboo plants and brass elephants.

And let’s not forget dessert, which in a Vietnamese restaurant can be a real cultural encounter. I avoided the beans and wriggly, multicolored cubes of agar agar for years. But I found myself helpless to resist this che ba mau, an iced parfait of young coconut, coconut cream and three kinds of beans. Hot fudge sundaes, move over.

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