The “melting pot” effect that occurs whenever a wave of new immigrants hits our shores is usually examined from the impact it makes upon culture.
But, just as the laws of physics tell us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the immigrants tend to be transformed by their new environment every bit as much as they transform it. The process occurs especially after the new arrivals venture out of the ethnic enclaves in which they typically make their first homes.
This double effect occurs noticeably in restaurants. At least for the first generation or so, those that open in ethnic neighborhoods cater primarily to an old-country clientele and usually serve foods prepared exactly as in the homeland, unadulterated by established American tastes, preferences and dislikes.
Testing the Waters
However, when ethnic restaurateurs start testing the waters in other neighborhoods, they often modify their menus and dishes to suit the broader, more generalized tastes of the mainstream. When they do this, they demonstrate the opposite reaction of the “melting pot” effect.
A case in point would be Le Bambou, an interesting new Vietnamese eatery in Del Mar. Operated by a proprietor who formerly ran an establishment in one of San Diego’s Vietnamese neighborhoods, Le Bambou is noticeably American in its menu, not in the dishes themselves, but in the selection from the broader Vietnamese repertoire.
Though the cuisine is unquestionably authentic, traditional Vietnamese, the menu at Le Bambou is oriented strongly to the eating habits of the West. The cooking shows not the faintest hint of French influence, even though the French colonists left a lasting mark on Indochinese culture.
For example, the soup list offers six choices, all served in relatively small, first course-sized portions. In large restaurants that serve primarily a Vietnamese clientele, guests often can choose among more than 100 soups (mostly variations on a limited number of set themes, it is true, but still an astounding variety), many of them served in very large portions and intended as complete meals-in-a-bowl.
Noodle Dishes Scant
The Le Bambou menu also avoids the wonderful noodle dishes that are the mainstays of restaurants in Southern California’s numerous and large Vietnamese neighborhoods. (The restaurants in the “Little Saigon” section of Orange County are a revelation and a genuine treat for anyone who hankers for the unusual.) At Le Bambou, noodles are used simply as adjuncts or garnishes to meat preparations and are good enough to make one wish that they were available on their own and in some variety.
This eatery also demonstrates the reverse melting pot effect in that it has succumbed to the American restaurant tradition of inconsistency. The first meal sampled gave a poor impression, while the second made it clear that the kitchen is capable of turning out an excellent cuisine.
Although eight standing appetizers are available, it is nearly impossible to avoid ordering a plate of Imperial rolls, if only because these are to Vietnamese restaurant cuisine in this country what egg rolls are to Chinese: indispensable.
Le Bambou offers two good, quite typical versions--one of pork and vegetables, the other fancied up by the addition of crab and shrimp. In both cases, the filling is wrapped in a thin circle of dough and deep-fried, to be re-wrapped by the guests in crisp lettuce leaves and ducked in nuoc mam , the pungent, fish-based sauce that is the very soul of Vietnamese cooking. (The temperature contrasts created by wrapping hot pastry in chilled lettuce, as well as the texture contrast of soft filling and crisp wrapper, are among the primary virtues of this cuisine and are repeated in many dishes.)
A somewhat less common appetizer, the charbroiled shrimp and pork balls, undergo an even more complicated but equally satisfying treatment at the table. These moist, savory tidbits arrive smoking hot alongside plates laden with transparent rice pancakes, shredded vegetables (including tangy pickled scallion buds) and sprigs of fresh cilantro and mint. Guests transform this array of ingredients into what might be considered Asian tacos by garnishing a pancake with a little of everything, rolling it up and dipping it in spicy peanut sauce before savoring the multiple flavors, textures and temperatures. Other starters that undergo the same treatment are the suitably exotic chao tom (shrimp paste, smeared on a length of sugar cane and grilled over charcoal) and the charbroiled skewered pork cubes.
As mentioned earlier, the menu is short on soups, but the few offered do give a clue to the riches of the Vietnamese repertoire. Suong combines spaghetti-like rice noodles and shrimp in a tartly pungent chicken broth that gets its puckery accent from lemon grass, a favorite condiment of Southeast Asian cooking. The moderate heat, supplied by a bit of fresh chili pepper, also is typical, and in other instances is given far greater play. (Asian peppers can be vastly hotter than our local varieties. Several years ago, a waiter in an out-of-town restaurant patronized primarily by Vietnamese placed a plate of slivered peppers on the table and said, “Don’t try these. You’ll be sorry.” Guests at nearby tables were offered the same advice, which of course was ignored; at least 50 people applauded delightedly when these incandescent peppers went to work.)
Neither of the entrees sampled on the first visit was satisfactory. The sauteed shrimp in spicy fresh tomato sauce tasted as if it had been slapped together in a hurry, except in the case of the shrimp, which were stale. The “shaking beef,” a dish of beef cubes marinated in garlic and given a quick saute, featured tough meat, an oddity in Oriental cooking.
A subsequent visit more than compensated for the preliminary failings, however. The shrimp were given a second try and were found to be fresh and delicious, the sauce particularly virtuous and a nice accompaniment to the plate of pan-fried noodles ordered as a special request. Chicken cubes sauteed with garlic and lemon grass offered a sourish, spicy effect of amazing delicacy and richness, and a succulent, highly seasoned roast Cornish game hen proved that this usually unlovely bird can be made delicious when given the right treatment.
A Classic Dish
The star of this visit, however, was a dish that the guests cooked for themselves at table. A Vietnamese classic, it began with thin slices of raw beef marinated in oil with onion, garlic and lemon grass, which were tossed briefly on a Sterno-heated griddle before being wrapped with vegetables and herbs in rice pancakes and dipped in nuoc mam . There was pleasure in cooking and assembling the dish, and much pleasure in eating it. (In a variation, guests cook the beef in boiling vinegar sauce before garnishing and wrapping it.)
Other Le Bambou specialties include laque duck, a slowly roasted fowl notable for its burnished skin; rice baked in a clay pot with a variety of meats and seasonings; catfish simmered in a clay pot; refreshing salads of meats and/or seafoods teamed with a variety of greens and vegetables, and the iced Vietnamese coffee that makes a peculiarly refreshing dessert.
2634 Del Mar Heights Road, Del Mar.
Lunch and dinner served Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays.
Credit cards accepted.
Dinner for two, including a moderate bottle of wine, tax and tip, about $30 to $50.