Cafe Reviews

Mouth Pacific

Page 2 of 3

Except for Korea and a few regions of China, lamb is shunned throughout the Orient--it's considered too strong and gamy. Most Chinese restaurants don't offer it. But New Mandarin Delight offers Hunan lamb, sliced meat in a sauce not nearly as spicy as the menu suggests. And if you're looking for an alternative to sweet-and-sour pork, consider Peking pork, enlivened with lots of bamboo shoots.

Not every dish works. One vegetarian dish we sampled, twin mushroom with bean curd, is a snooze: cubes of tofu tossed with a few shiitake mushrooms in a dull, brown liquid. Hot-and-sour soup isn't pungent enough to make a newborn pucker. And your memory of the barbecued-pork appetizer will vanish the moment it's cleared from the table.

Don't misjudge New Mandarin Delight just because it doesn't hang duck carcasses in the front window or employ servers who communicate only in Mandarin. Order well, and you'll be rewarded with good food, at neighborhood prices, in a very pleasant setting.

Da Vang, 4538 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 242-3575. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Breakfast and Lunch, Wednesday, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

In contrast to New Mandarin Delight, DaVang looks like everything I used to worship in an ethnic restaurant: Specials written in Vietnamese are posted on the walls; blaring Vietnamese pop music is piped in; "33" export beer from the home country sits in a refrigerated case; and cigarettes for sale are housed in ancient wooden shelves behind the cash register. The clientele also conformed to my ideal ethnic-restaurant mental picture: The only non-Vietnamese I saw in here was, inexplicably, a Mexican mariachi outfitted in full music-making regalia.

One other Third World element also was present in abundance: grunge. It's everywhere--on the floor, on the windows, on the walls, on the vertical blinds, on the display cases. The proprietors are definitely not wearing themselves out wielding brooms and dustcloths. If you bring fussy Aunt Edith and Uncle Walter from Milwaukee here to give them an authentic Vietnamese experience, you'd better bring along some Pine-Sol to revive them.

Just as Da Vang's setting doesn't aim for Western levels of tidiness, the food doesn't make concessions to Western palates. This is native ethnic fare, with a vengeance. You can tell right away from the pho, the traditional Vietnamese meal-in-a-bowl beef soup. Our server steered us away from pho DaVang--"It has tendon and tripe," he warned. So we settled on pho tai, a somewhat greasy but flavorful broth stocked with thin rice noodles, scallions and sliced beef that did not come from the world's leanest, tenderest cow.

Most other soups also make it clear that you're not in Kansas anymore. Canh chua ca tom lon, for example, features shrimp and unfilleted chunks of catfish in a sharp tamarind broth, seasoned with green chiles. It's an acquired taste that first-timers probably won't immediately acquire. They'd be much better off with mi sui cao, a less threatening bowl thick with shell-on shrimp, roast pork, squid, egg noodles and won-ton-wrapped shrimp, garnished with lots of cilantro.

You can't find ethnic appetizers much better (or cheaper) than goi cuon or cha gio. The former are Vietnamese rice-paper rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, rice noodles and greenery. The latter resemble Chinese egg rolls, fried crisp and filled with shrimp and pork. Dip them both into nuoc cham, a strong, anchovy-based sauce that's an indispensable part of Vietnamese cuisine.

Da Vang's banh xeo, a rice-flour crepe, is definitely a less compelling way to start a meal. At its best, banh xeo is magnificent, a sizzlingly crisp, right-out-of-the-skillet crepe brimming with shrimp and pork. The oily model here, however, is filled with fatty pork and a ho-hum load of bean sprouts.

The main dishes can't really compete with those at Pearl of Asia and Pho Bang, two superior Vietnamese restaurant alternatives. Hu tieu xao hai vi (number 14 to most of us) puts a few shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, squid, inedible gristly pork and fake crab (ugh!) atop rice noodles in a surprisingly dull sauce.

The steamed rice covered with shredded pork, barbecued pork and crab-and-egg "pate" (number 35) is merely routine, not nearly as good as the same dish at Pho Bang. A noodle version of this dish (number 30), mixed with barbecued pork and ground shrimp, is no improvement. Lemongrass chicken, meanwhile, employs unattractively large hunks of dark meat that taste as if they've been sitting around since the fall of Saigon.

Only nem nuong (number 42) aroused my interest. They're wonderful, bite-size, barbecued-pork meatballs, served (like everything else) with masses of lettuce, mint, basil and cilantro for wrapping. (If your doctor ever diagnoses a chlorophyll deficiency, a single visit to a Vietnamese restaurant should furnish the cure.)

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Howard Seftel