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Hunks of yellow margarine sizzle madly on a tabletop grill. Thin slices of red, rare beef stick to its surface and darken dramatically. From beneath the gas burner, smoke begins to billow. This potential 911 scene takes place at my table in #1 Restaurant, a new Vietnamese place in a small strip mall dominated by Vietnamese businesses at 35th Avenue and Indian School. What do I do? Yours truly, veteran diner, stands and waves her hand in the air. The staff members in the spacious, well-lighted restaurant do not see me.
"Excuse me?" I say loudly, waving. Well across the room, our hostess chats with some Vietnamese acquaintances. She does not appear to hear me. "Hey," I call. "Help!" I am only half-kidding. The flames under the grill leap higher. I do not know how to control them. It is clear I must go for assistance. While my dining accomplice stands at the ready with a glass of water, I trot across the linoleum floor to the table where our hostess sits. "We need help," I explain. She looks up, sees the smoke and hurries over. Expertly, she adjusts the flame. "The girl turned this too high," she scolds. The smoke abates as she pulls the charred meat off the grill with a pair of chopsticks. "Too high," she mutters again, then, "These are ready. You roll them in rice paper now with lettuce."
The labor-intensive dish we are enjoying is bo nuong vi. Earlier, when we request this traditional favorite by describing it, our hostess searches the menu. "I know the one you mean," she says. "You cook the beef, then wrap in rice paper, right?" She scans the menu with a long fingernail. "Hmmm," she ponders, "is it this one?"
Our hostess is having trouble, because the Vietnamese-Chinese menu at #1 Restaurant is nearly 200 items long. Not all dishes are translated into English. Which means if you're craving frog's legs (frozen, of course) ask for ech. Clam is ngheu. Eel is luon. Cua is crab. We do not try these. This is probably why they weren't translated to begin with; Americans, our hostess informs us, don't order the unknown.
She's close to being right.
On these initial tryouts at #1 Restaurant, I mostly stick with what I know--or think I know--on the menu. I am not disappointed. Many of the dishes I sample are very good. Pho tai, clear-broth sliced beef and rice-noodle soup, is delicately flavored with cilantro, green onion and Thai basil. Goi cuon, or fresh spring rolls, served with a peanut dipping sauce, are picture perfect: long, cylindrical rice-paper rolls of lettuce, noodle, shrimp and pork plumed with scallion. #1's cold rice vermicelli, shrimp and grilled pork salad (bun tom thit nuong), holds its own with any in the Valley. Even when I venture into uncharted terrain, the results are mostly positive. I like the banh cuon dac biet nem cha. In concept, it's similar to a bun dish, only with a change of noodle; these noodles are fat and resemble torn, wet rice paper. Other ingredients include mint, bean sprouts, cucumber, onion, an exotic mixture of papaya and meat and sliced pork sausage resembling white bologna.
Though I have always wanted to try mi kho soup, I probably would not order it here again. Curly egg noodles topped with shrimp, a pair of strange white meatballs and various vegetation come in one bowl. The soup's broth arrives in another. Interesting. Eat the broth and noodles together or separately--it's up to you. The noodles have a charming egg taste, but the so-called "meatballs" have the texture of organ meat. Two longtime favorites are slightly disappointing at #1 Restaurant. Cha gio (fried spring rolls) are overly greasy, though the leaf lettuce, mint and cilantro that come with them are fresh and attractive. Chicken with lemon grass, listed in the Chinese section of the menu, features hacked-up dark meat and lacks that pungent, spicy tang most of us associate with this dish.
There is plenty here to drink with your meal. I recommend the sweet, pink tropical fruit shake, or tart, fresh lemonade. My beloved filtered iced coffee with condensed milk, cafe sua da, is also available. #1's cup-sized French filters flow fine; I just wish I didn't experience an unpleasant soapy aftertaste when I finish my iced coffee. (What could it be? The ice? The condensed milk?)
The environment at #1 is upbeat and cheerful. Customers and staff are mostly Vietnamese. The restaurant is prettily decorated with maroon tablecloths and pink silk flowers. A color TV is embedded in one wall. Tables are stocked with all the necessary condiments: red vinegar, fish sauce, Sriracha, hoisin, soy sauce, red chile sauce. Just a few months after the restaurant's opening, however, the linoleum floor no longer shines and the plastic-coated menus look grungy. The new owners of this eatery should be more vigilant. Oversights like this give diners the distinct impression that maintenance is lax. As it stands, #1 Restaurant offers an alternative for adventurers seeking authentic Vietnamese cuisine. I know I'll be stopping in here for iced coffee, soup and more on a regular basis.