AT ITS BEST, Vietnamese food combines the precise cutting and rapid cooking of Chinese food with the complexity of French seasoning and the visual enticement of Japanese cuisine. There are little surprises of contrast-raw onions and beef stirred into hot soup at the last minute, delicately flavored shrimp paste wrapped around sugar cane, fish sparked with pineapple. And there is the underlying exotic tang of the fermented fish sauce which is the Vietnamese equivalent of soy sauce, and tastes as little like fish as soy sauce tastes like soybeans.
A few years ago Washington and Annapolis had the only two Vietnamese restaurants on the East Coast. Now, Washington has at least ten, four of them in the city proper, and cha-gio, the rice-paper-wrapped cousins to egg rolls, are suddenly recognized as one of the memorable dishes from the Eastern world. For a start, herewith a review of Washington's four in-town restaurants, listed in order of my preference.
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight. No credit cards. No reservations weekends between 7 and 10 p.m.
Redecorated with considerable taste, Viet Huong Cafe Restaurant is better than ever. Despite a fierce red and gold tiger mural, the small room is a peaceful mix of bamboo and bentwood, plants and candles. Like La Fregate, the tunic-clad waitresses are intent on pleasing their guests. And, with entrees from $1.65 to $6.25, prices are equally moderate. Viet Huong makes it easy to try a range of specialties, since they offer soups in two sizes and several combination plates. Underseasoning is a continual flaw, but otherwise the food is quite good. Start with soup, either meat dumpling with roast pork and noodles in a golden broth, or the national soup, pho, crunchy with barely cooked onion and pungent with anise. If your tastes are adventurous, order the beautiful pale fisherman's soup, sweet and tart, a contrast of raw bean sprouts and tomatoes, pineapple, scallions, fish and shrimp. The cha gio serve well as a platter or as part of a combination plate, the best of which is the Viet Huong Special of toast. The menu's stars are sauteed noodles with mixed meats and vegetables; garlicky steamed fish with shreds of meat, fungus, noodles and lots of ginger; tempura-like shrimp; and subtly sweet, tender caramel pork. Some of the grilled dishes have been dry, and fried dishes (especially shrimp toast) have been greasy; beggar's rice tasted as drab as it sounds. But every combination plate has some highlights. Being a cafe, Viet Huong has several varieties of coffee and refreshing fresh lemonade and non-alcoholic pina colada, as well as beer and wine. Forget the desserts.