Good Evening Vietnam

Cafe Dà Lat

10 W. 25th St., Mpls.;

813-1833

          I AM REMINDED of Cafe Dà Lat at least once a week by a friend who became a devotee of the restaurant ever since stumbling across it a few months ago. I took my time heeding his raving praise and encouragement to visit, feeling smug in my assumption that most small Vietnamese cafes are more or less the same, serving large bowls of noodle soups best eaten with vigorous squirts of bottled sauces and the heap of fresh basil and bean sprouts that usually spill over their plastic plates. Nothing's better on a cold day when you're fighting the flu or want to do away with the pretension of dining out, but on the other hand, not too remarkable. Without my friend's constant gushing I probably wouldn't have made it to Cafe Dà Lat, especially since it doesn't speak very loudly on its own behalf.

          Cafe Dà Lat is singularly plain. Nothing much to see besides a few nondescript tables and chairs, a clock on the wall, and a very large television set. Even the display case by the register is empty, save for a few soda cans. My friend found the strange web of conduits coming out of the wall clock quite interesting, but I doubt if many others would share this fascination. The outside view is equally plain, the large storefront windows looking out over some unremarkable apartment buildings.

          Fortunately, the lack of distractions sharpens one's focus on the service, which is relaxed and good-natured, and on the food, which is absolutely divine. Those on a budget should keep Cafe Dà Lat in mind when trying to impress company; the appetizers alone, averaging about $3 apiece, were enough to stuff us. The spring rolls ($2.50)--which have become nearly as common as corn dogs in these parts--are in a class of their own. Martha Stewart herself couldn't have turned out anything more elegant: two perfectly-formed rolls with transparent skin through which one could see whole jumbo shrimp spaced out as if by a ruler, with a blade of grass chive running the entire length of it. Dipped in a house fish sauce laden with freshly chopped peanuts, they were filling and scrumptious.

          Of course we had to try the imperial pancakes, a focal point of my friend's passion. When I ordered them with my meal, our waitress quickly raised
an eyebrow. "Is that all for you?
That's too much. Yes, this is too much for you," she said most decidedly. Steadfast with curiosity, I ordered them anyway--then blushed when she set the immense platter down in front of me, piled high with enough food to feed our entire table. Soon my friends and I were fork-deep in the midst of these thin, buttery pancakes (a perfectionist might argue they were crepes, but we were too busy devouring the evidence to bother), fried to a light crisp and filled with a goldmine of jumbo shrimp, bean sprouts, pan-seared pork, and lightly seasoned green and yellow beans ($4.75).

          The rest of the menu is split between noodle soups and rice entrées, with a few specialty dishes for those who can't decide between the two. I was in the mood for soup, and was very happy with my bowl of clear rice noodles with seafood ($4.75); the noodles crunchy, the pork-based broth well-seasoned, and the seafood--squid, jumbo shrimp in the shell, and the imitation crabmeat--most plentiful. More adventurous eaters might try the hot and spicy rice noodle soup with stewed pork feet and beef ($4.75), or the salty caramel fish ($5.50). My friends were quite satisfied with their dish: rice with grilled, shredded beef marinated in lime leaves ($4.75).

          For the time being, dessert is limited to sweet drinks. All the Vietnamese standards are available, and the ones we tried we tried were done well, from the hot jasmine tea ($.50) to the sweet and pleasantly chalky soybean milk ($1.25) to the espresso coffee with sweet condensed milk ($1.75).

          My friend was right. A hungry, thrifty gourmet couldn't possibly find herself in a better place than this.

          TABLE HOPPING

          CHEF GEEK: Is your chef hat caught somewhere in cyberspace? If so, don't miss out on the Whirlpool site, filled with recipes and tips from various celebrated chefs (among descriptions of their products of course; you know that there is no free lunch). PBS's Martin Yan reveals secrets for cooking Chinese and dishes out recipes for Triple Pepper Steak and Fish with Spicy Salsa, and Chef Alex Patout of Alex Patout's Louisiana Restaurant in New Orleans offers Cajun and Creole creations including Shrimp Remoulade, Smothered Duck, and Pecan Pie. Best yet, enter Whirlpool's monthly recipe contest (currently, Whirlpool is seeking recipes for holiday cookies and creative ways to deal with turkey leftovers in November) and win Whirlpool appliances. Win first prize and get your hands on a microwave oven; second place gets you a KitchenAid hand mixer. For more on contest rules, visit Win New Appliances at Whirlpool HomeLife Network, www.whirlpool.com.

          COME ON PEOPLE NOW, EAT WITH YOUR BROTHER: I missed National Eat Dinner Together Week; I was off doing one of the many things listed on my hectic schedule. Maybe I should reprioritize. According to a survey conducted by the National Pork Producers Council, which co-sponsored the NEDT Week, 73% of the 1,000 men and women surveyed said they think that eating dinner together is very or extremely important. Unfortunately, only 43% said they were able to eat together every night. If you would like to receive a National Eat Dinner Together Week recipe brochure and a kids activity and recipe book, send a self-addressed mailing label to: National Eat Dinner Together Week, c/o National Pork Producers Council, P.O. Box 10383, Des Moines, IA 50306. The recipe brochure has a week of family meal recipes, and the activity book includes puzzles and games that teach about food and nutrition, just in case you were wondering...

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