SAIGON HELPINGS

When I was sworn in last March as New Times restaurant critic, part of my oath of office was to share my restaurant findings with my readers. Sometimes, like this week, I do so reluctantly. At one time or another, all of you probably have "found" a little restaurant you instantly love. Week after week you stealthily return, relishing your find. You tell a few friends about it, but caution them to tell only their closest confidants. You don't want your beloved spot altered one iota. I think this instinct is natural. I remember the difficulty I had fifteen years ago, while living in Washington, D.C., in obtaining the name and address of a funky little Mexican restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. Only after I swore not to tell a soul did my co-worker give me directions to the best place for enchiladas in the Potomac Basin. The restaurant, whose name I now forget, was very small and very good, and I quickly understood why it was necessary to keep it hush-hush. If word got out, it soon would be swamped by people, including some who, undoubtedly, would be aghast at the plastic knives and forks. To keep the place exactly as it was, the way we loved it, it was important that only those who were simpatico should know about it. This is a roundabout way of saying that in writing this week's column, I run the risk of ruining one of my favorite new restaurants and changing its very chemistry. But that, in a sense, is what I get paid for.

Da Vang Restaurant is, without a doubt, the most authentic Vietnamese restaurant I've found in Phoenix. Extremely popular with the Southeast Asian community, this lace-curtained 19th Avenue "coffee shop" is always bustling with well-dressed families, pairs of businessmen and groups of young people sporting extremely cool shoes. They come here for the noodle dishes that are Da Vang's specialty, for French-filtered coffee or for any of the other 63 delicacies on its four-page menu.

They come, quite simply, because the food is so good.
During my several visits to Da Vang, I sample many selections. I've yet to find anything which isn't eye-opening. For the sake of space and time, rather than list all of the items I try, let me give you a general overview of the menu, highlighting some of its standouts.

Da Vang offers six different versions of pho, the yummy beef and rice-noodle soup which hails from the northern city of Hanoi. Pho Da Vang (#1) is a big bowl of rice noodles and paper-thin slices of beef in glistening beef broth flavored with star anise and ginger. Cilantro, green onion, tripe and some weird cartilaginous-looking things add to the soup's delicate flavoring. A plate of fresh herbs and greenery to be tossed in the soup includes slices of red and green chiles, bean sprouts, cilantro and lime. Be sure to make use of them; combining cooked and raw foods is quintessentially Vietnamese.

Hu tieu, subtitled "House Noodle Soup," originated in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The broth for this soup sometimes is served separately from the noodles, but not at Da Vang.

At Da Vang, the primary difference between Hanoi- and Saigon-style rice-noodle soups is that the latter includes both seafood and meats, while the former uses meat only--beef or sometimes chicken. Hu tieu bot gao (#9) is a generous mix of rice noodle, shrimp fritter, whole shrimp and thin-sliced pork in a cilantro-and-Chinese-chive-flavored broth. It is marred only by the substitution, the day I try it, of imitation crab for squid.

Mi, or egg noodle soup, will be familiar to anyone who knows and loves the Hong Kong-style noodle soups available at Gourmet House, the Prime, or King's. That's because the Chinese introduced this soup to the Vietnamese, who have made it their own over the years. I like mi hoanh thanh (#18), essentially won ton noodle soup, with a smoky, hot flavor. The won tons are mostly wrapper, but the shrimp and pork filling and chicken broth more than make up for it.

Bun, thin rice vermicelli, is one of my favorite Vietnamese noodle dishes. Nine varieties of bun are available at Da Vang, including two soups--which I can't wait to go back and try.

Most bun dishes, including bun thit nuong (#27), are constructed in layers. At the bottom of your bowl you'll find fresh bean sprouts, julienne cucumber, shredded lettuce and Thai basil or mint. These crunchy textures are obscured by cool rice vermicelli, which, in turn, is topped with barbecued pork, chopped roasted peanuts, cilantro and green onions. Add some nuoc cham, the amber-colored spicy-sweet sauce, and a dash or two of Sriracha, a Tabasco-like red chile condiment, toss the whole mix with your chopsticks and enjoy. It's unbeatable for lunch or breakfast: light, yet sustaining and satisfying.

Another dish listed in the bun section of the menu is banh hoi chao tom thit nuong (#31). This is one of the more exotic dishes I order at Da Vang. In essence, it's a do-it-yourself fresh spring-roll plate. I receive a plate of round rice papers cut into quarters, a plate of fresh herbs and greenery and a plate of cold rice vermicelli (that's right, bun), fatty barbecued pork and slices of a substance called ground shrimp, which is something like a shrimp aspic. To eat this concoction, unfurl a rice paper; line with a bit of lettuce, mint, cucumber; add the pork, some bun and ground shrimp and roll up like a miniature burrito. Dip the roll into your bowl of nuoc cham before eating. It's good, but too much for me to finish alone. A little ground shrimp goes a long way.

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