QUEEN BEE -- 3181 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 527-3444. Open: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Choice, MC, V. Reservations not necessary. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.20 to $5.95, entrees $4.25 to $7.50 (lunch special $3.50). Full dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip less than $15 per person.
It has been a decade and a half since Washington got its first Vietnamese restaurant. And that was nothing more than a dozen tables in the dining room of the Christian Inn on 16th Street NW, at first open only for lunch.
The choice of Vietnamese dishes was limited -- steamed abalone and mushroom balls were the highlight -- and the Vietnamese food was seasoned hardly more daringly than the hamburger (which may, after all, have been the restaurant's most popular entree).
The restaurant was called Haichiem, and it happened to be the first Washington restaurant I reviewed, so I have a particular soft spot for it. During its short existence, Haichiem expanded its hours and grew more bold in its seasoning. Overall, it improved (as I hope I have since that first review). In fact, it ultimately produced some of the best Vietnamese cooking I have tasted.
And since then I have tasted a lot. The Washington area probably has more Vietnamese restaurants now than could be found in the entire country in 1973, when Haichiem was first reviewed. And those restaurants now have access to fresh lemon grass and locally made nuoc mam -- the fermented fish sauce that is the Vietnamese answer to soy sauce. Even abalone and shiitake mushrooms can be found fresh nowadays, whereas in Haichiem's day they were necessarily canned or dried.
We all know much more about Vietnamese food now and bring a more critical palate to it. Fresh coriander is in our refrigerators at home, so we expect it to season soups and garnish spring rolls. And many of us now know enough to call the basic Vietnamese soup pho and the spring rolls cha gio.
Nowadays Vietnamese restaurants have gardens stocked with fresh Asian herbs and menus that go on for a hundred dishes. The only thing that hasn't changed, it sometimes seems, is the prices. Most Vietnamese restaurants are still rock-bottom bargains.
Queen Bee is typical. The most expensive entrees on the regular menu are seafood dishes at $7.50. Many main dishes at dinner cost $5 to $6. And while portions are small, filling out a meal with an appetizer is likely to add less than $3 per person.
What's more, Queen Bee's dining room is more decorative than you might expect for a $15 dinner. The walls are lined with mirrors and hung with impressive painted screens. A rear section looks ready to convert to a dance floor, with a mirrored globe and tiny lights outlining the restaurant's name. And behind that is a jungle -- well, a wallpaper jungle. The tables are set with white cloths and glass tops. In fact, one waitress goes around a good part of the evening with a spray bottle of glass cleaner to keep those tables shipshape.
With all of these modernizations and expansions, though, it still takes some explanation to decipher each Vietnamese restaurant's menu, because descriptions are vague and sometimes plain incorrect. We still find it hard to believe that the Hanoi-style grilled pork we had at Queen Bee one evening wasn't beef, particularly since another day it was very different -- much paler and more delicate, crustier and brushed with a sweet-salty glaze.
On the right day, Queen Bee is the soul of patient education. At lunch our waiter went to great pains to help plan our meal, then insisted on showing us how to shred mint and coriander leaves over the grilled meat so the herbs could cool and refresh as well as season the dish. On a busy Saturday night, however, no instruction was given. In some cases, in fact, no fresh herbs were offered where they had been before.
If you are on your own, you'll need some advice. If there are leafy greens, herbs and cucumbers accompanying a dish, they are meant to be shredded and tossed together or wrapped with the meat and noodles in the lettuce leaves as a kind of leafy green egg roll. Sometimes a paper-thin half-disc of rice paper serves as a wrapper instead of lettuce.
As for ordering, if you have a tableful of people willing to share, you are on safer ground. Some of Queen Bee's cooking has delicious flavors but such intensity -- particularly sugar and salt -- that you probably wouldn't want to eat a whole portion on your own. Orange beef, for instance, is a delicious Southeast Asian version of the Chinese standby. The batter-fried beef is crunchy, and its glaze is quite aromatic with orange and ginger, heated to a slow burn with whole red chilis. But its dark sauce is so intensely salty and sweet that a couple of bites are enough. Caramel fish was even saltier, and some people at our table couldn't handle even a couple of bites. The fish itself was nicely cooked, however, and the underlying flavor of the dark caramelized sauce was pleasant.
A main dish I liked better was chicken with lemon grass -- bits of diced chicken in yet another sweet-spicy hot sauce that was thinner than the others, this time powerfully flavored with ginger and lemon grass. It needed rice to modify its power, just as other dishes -- such as beef with bacon, listed on a blackboard of specials rather than on the menu -- are all the better for being diluted with slippery, thin rice noodles.
Even though they need some muting, these strongly flavored dishes are worth ordering. The sweet-hot sauces are intriguing. And the grilled dishes are combinations that treat the tongue to a stimulating succession of impressions -- sweet, salty, sour, bitter. The beef with bacon is such an intermingling, though the beef itself was disappointingly chewy. And "golden coins" threads a pretty assortment of pork, chicken, pineapple slices and vegetable chunks to provide those contrasts, melded with the smoky flavor of grilling.
The milder dishes, such as mixed seafood on deliciously fried noodles or seafood with vegetables, can be bland in contrast; they should be eaten first. And sometimes they are soupy. Often the seafoods are skimpy, but taken in context (the context, of course, being that the Queen Bee seafood with noodles costs only $7.50 at dinner), the selection is plentiful. Diners should be warned to eat this seafood-noodle combination as soon as it is served, before those light, crisp noodles soften. Then it is a grand dish, though it doesn't have the impact of the more sharply seasoned choices.
And then there are dishes that are downright bland. The Saigon pancake has a crisp omelet wrapper, but inside are a lot of bean sprouts and not much of more flavorful ingredients. The house special salad is mostly cabbage, with barely seasoned morsels of pork and shrimp adding no zest. And among the appetizers, chicken stuffed with shrimp is actually the opposite: pieces of chicken wing, reheated so they are stringy, surrounded by a shrimp mousse that tastes more like dried than fresh shrimp and misses any flair. Also rather plain but with much better results are the plump and gamy roast quails.
Queen Bee boasts that its spring rolls are Asian Food Festival award winners. They are good enough, but no better than the norm except that they might be meatier. In fact, they are a bit timid in their seasoning. The pho -- long-cooked broth with noodles and slices of rare beef -- is much braver in its use of spices, particularly anise and coriander.
So Queen Bee seesaws between too much and too little from the spice cabinet. Its grilled meats tend to be chewy, and some of the stir-fried dishes are soupy. Still, it is a friendly environment where sometimes the cooking sizzles and the prices warrant a forgiving attitude. Most important, it illustrates how varied and sophisticated Vietnamese menus have become.
A final illustration of this is on the back page of Queen Bee's menu. Among the usual desserts of litchis, longans and flambe'ed bananas and pineapple is black-eye bean on coconut milk, which is a very exotic version of rice pudding. And among the beverages are even more exotic choices -- guanabana juice, salty soda with salted plums, and beaten egg soda. Then there is the wonderful Vietnamese iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk, as refreshing and satisfying as a milkshake.
Vietnamese restaurants have joined the mainstream in Washington, but we still have a lot to discover from them. ::