TO PLAY this food game, pretend you don't own a car, take real 60-minute lunch hours, own a wok and know a good bok choy from a wilted winter melon. To win the game you have to buy enough groceries to make a simple Vietnamese meal. You do not live in Saigon.
To begin: Take the Metro to the Clarendon Station. Cross over to Wilson Boulevard. Directly in front of you there will be an ethnic neighborhood. This is not an easy thing to find in Washington. The neighborhood is called Little Saigon. In this one-block strip you will find four Vietamese markets -- Pacific, Department Store, Mekong Center, Vietnam Market and Saigon Market.
Pacific Department Store, corner of Highland and Wilson Blvd.: The trick here is not to be waylaid by the pile of shiny brocade silks and ginger jars. Go directly to the back of the store, past the stacks of Oriental china on sale. Scan the aisles of canned straw mushrooms, quail eggs, oyster mushrooms, bean sprouts and water chestnuts. All the fancy tinned cookies and sweets are there to tempt you. On to the next aisle: Seven different kinds of nuoc mam (TABLE)(SECTION)auce lightest in color with the work nhi on the label. This signifies the highest quality. (COLUMN)Now the spice aisle: alum, fish powder, dried mustard, whole turmeric, lemon grass, star anise, a field of dried mushrooms. There are 25 different kinds of Chinese Vermicelli and rice sticks. Grab the thinnest and cheapest. (COLUMN)There is a scent of fish around the next aisle -- 15 varieties of dried fish. Never mind. Grab the small round rice papers. Careful, they are very fragile. Now across from the dried fish maw, cassia leaves and pomelo peel look for a can of crab meat next to the prawns, baby clams, oysters, snails, squid, shark's fin and shelves of pickled vegetables of every kind. (COLUMN)Your next stop takes you through the Hopper Realty office and into the Pacific Cafe. Delicious soups, vermicelli dishes, rice dishes for $2.50 to $3.50. You have no time to stop, so remember to come back another time except Tuesday. The Pacific Cafe is closed then, but open every other day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (COLUMN)Mekong Center, 3107 Wilson Blvd.: The shelves are neater and better organized here so you should not be held up, but if you are buying expensive items like dried shark's fin ($15.50) check the Saigon Market, it's cheaper ($13.50). Same with buying rice in bulk (25 pound bags) -- shop around. If you are unsure of the rules of this game, buy "The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam" here. In addition to a tempting variety of canned and fresh foods there is a wide selection of frozen food prepared by the Imperial Garden Restaurant: Sweet rice cake, pickled pork rolls, cubes and pork with cinnamon. Save the fungus in heavy syrup, frozen eel, bees secretions and red melon seeds for another game. Time is running out. The owner is very helpful if you feel you are lagging behind. He is available from 9:30 to 7 p.m. (COLUMN)The next shop is the Viet Nam Center, open every day from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sundays until 6 p.m. The store is small but good for conpetitive pricing. Buy a bok choy or another fresh vegetable. Grab a knob of ginger from the box on the floor. And if you must have the fancy imported Normandy butter in a tin buy it here ($3.45). Frozen fish and meat are stocked in the freezer. One more stop. (COLUMN)Saigon Market, 3147 Wilson Blvd.: Make a metal note of the Jamacian, Indonesian and Indian curry powders. But best of all spend some time with the fresh snails, fresh lemon grass, winter melon, Fuyu persimmons and fresh cilantro (Chinese parsley). there are frozen Philippine foods available like jackfruit and sometimes Peking duck. Get a good deal on rice -- $6.75 for 25 pounds. When you are checking out grab a pork sandwich ($1.25) stuffed with cucumber, carrots, scallions and Chinese parsley. (COLUMN)If you have some time left check out the menu in the windows of Le Rendezvous Restaurant -- deliciously hot Korean spiced beef, or any of the other Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese or Thai dishes offered. Just to throw off the ethnocentric tone of the game there is El Prado at 3181 Wilson Blvd. offering Cuban and Latin dishes from empanadas ($1.50) to paella ($8.95) (COLUMN)Now back to the station with your purchases. As you go down the escalator do you still smell the musky dried fish? Are the pentatonic tones of Vietnamese Muzak still ringing in your ears? Do you feel as if you have been in another country where you have been treated like a human being in the midst of urban coping? Good. You are a success in the game . . . without getting in your car, without fighting for a parking place and without computer-assisted checkout. (END TABLE) CAPTION: (TABLE) Picture, no caption, By James Thresher -- The Washington Post (END TABLE)