Tuesday, November 24, 1998

High traffic

Posted on Tue, Nov 24, 1998 at 4:00 AM

As the midweek rush-hour traffic was crawling alone outside on Colonial Drive, the tables were filling up at Little Saigon. After 12 years in the same location just west of Mills Avenue, they've built a faithful downtown clientele.

The noise level rose as more customers were seated and conversation picked up. To the left, a father was instructing his toddler on how to use chopsticks. To the right, a woman was telling her companion about the difference between America and the Azores, from where she had immigrated. And across the room, another woman was pontificating at a healthy decibel about the sexual peccadilloes of Frank Lloyd Wright, as detailed in the recent PBS series.

With all of that background stimulus, it was hard for the menu to compete for our attention. We didn't know where to begin. There are 144 choices in bold Vietnamese print with translations in English. After a few minutes of poring over the fine print, we were experiencing sensory overload: rice noodles, rice noodle beef soups, noodle entrees, rice dishes, rice vermicelli dishes, rice plates, appetizers and additional appetizers.

We decided to start at the beginning, with the No. 1 Vietnamese pancake ($4.95), a fried crepe, doubled over and filled with shredded pork, shrimp and glassy noodles and sprouts. It was delicious and filling enough for a meal for one.

Next we had No. 119, a combo platter featuring "tiny rice stick." We were visualizing compressed rice, formed into crunchy little sticks, but no, it was actually a form of rice-noodle vermicelli, only smaller and more threadlike in texture. This was topped with charbroiled pork cubes and "shrimp paste," which is a ground shrimp patty. It was a good deal at $7.95, including two pork spring rolls with hoisin sauce. During dinner, our waiter was very accommodating, checking back with us several times.

On our next visit, at lunchtime, we had less success. The restaurant was full and our waiter was so rushed that he almost took off before we could place our full order. We requested the No. 107 appetizer, which the menu described as charbroiled pork with "rice papers," a translucent wrapper used around meats and vegetables ($6.95).

When he brought it to our table moments later, we questioned whether it was even what we had ordered. There were no rice papers included with the dinner plate filled with vermicelli, pork meatballs, iceberg lettuce and cucumbers. The waiter, meanwhile, was busily juggling so many tables that it was impossible to get his attention until he delivered our entree -- the No. 81 stir-fried shrimp with rice ($5.50) that skimped on the most important ingredient of all. There were just five undersized shrimp on a mass of white rice, caramelized onions and veggies.

It wasn't until the end of the meal that our waiter finally brought the rice papers for the appetizer, with no apology or explanation for the delay.

We enjoyed most of the food we sampled on two visits. No doubt, this restaurant is a worthy choice for anyone who craves Vietnamese cuisine. But newcomers should pay close attention to the menu, ask lots of questions and avoid the dining rush hour.


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