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Le Bambou
2600 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; (612) 870-1802
Hours: 8:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Sunday; summer hours will be later; American food is served only until 2:00 p.m.

 

It takes awhile to get your head around Le Bambou, the Vietnamese restaurant inside the drugstore on the corner of 26th and Nicollet. Enter at that corner entrance and you must walk past an array of marshmallow candies and household cleaning products to get to the restaurant. Enter through the back door from the parking lot and you pass a particularly active check-cashing establishment. Once seated in a vintage Naugahyde booth in Le Bambou, Butler Drug's former lunch counter, you'll marvel at the early-Seventies mock-outdoor décor: The room is dominated by a photo mural of sun-dappled forest, bordered by a real white picket fence. The ceiling is adorned with a green trellis.

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Le Bambou

2600 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Vietnamese

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

"Why do I feel like I'm in Las Vegas?" wondered one of my friends, on sitting down and boggling at the place, which has preserved the old-fashioned drugstore menu of BLTs and omelettes and simply added a few dozen Vietnamese specialties. Now, patty melts and squid soup look at one another from opposite pages in the menu, and the clientele neatly matches this disparity: At the counter, older Minnesotans, snow-cured and plaid-clad, smoke cigarettes and drink coffee from heavy mugs ($1.25 includes two refills). At the tables, young Vietnamese wait for thick Vietnamese coffee ($1.75) to drip down from a brewing cap onto a bed of condensed milk and ice.

I don't think you'll find this even in Las Vegas, or at least not until someone builds the Nicollet Avenue in the year 2001 casino, but I think I know what my friend meant. Las Vegas is the most incongruous place on earth, with gondolas, faux oceans, lost money, and white tigers. Likewise, Le Bambou is also mind-warpingly incongruous: Wondering where, under one roof, you might fill a prescription, buy cat litter, wire money to Mexico, and wash down some Hue-city-style hot and spicy Vietnamese soup with a chocolate malt? Wonder no more.

What's most interesting about all this is that some of the food here is incredibly good: I mean, incredibly good. There's one dish particularly that leapt into my local Top 10 in only a few dazzling bites. This gem can be found hiding in the menu at lucky number 45, "Bún Chå Núóng Thâng long", inauspiciously described as "served with special grilled pork salad, $6" (and not to be confused with number 50, grilled pork salad, $5.50, which is perfectly good, but not amazing). Ordering number 45 brings a bowl of grilled pork chunks that crackle in the mouth and taste ambrosial. This pork has been marinated and grilled briefly at high heat so as to preserve as much of the precious fat as possible. Every bite is tender, sweet, and dangerously tasty. It's served alongside cold rice noodles and vinegared julienne carrots, sliced cucumbers, and lots of fresh mint. Combined, the ingredients make for a dish like a melody picked out on a harp, each note clear and clean. Gorge yourself only on the pork, and you've got something that will make a local barbecue lover cry.

"I've never had Vietnamese food this good," my friend kept murmuring, "never, never." This was only because he hadn't tried number 46, beef in lã lôp leaves ($6), a dish that has become such a favorite of mine that I've had to force myself to stop ordering it. These rolls are the Vietnamese equivalent of stuffed grape leaves; ground, seasoned beef rolled in green leaves, and grilled until the leaves become crisp. The little cylinders--served on a bed of room-temperature noodles, topped with a mixture of sautéed peanuts and scallions, and accompanied by sprigs of fresh mint, sweet marinated cucumbers, and carrots--have a dry, beefy, woody taste. They remind me, oddly enough, of beef jerky. Want them sweet, sour, and breathtakingly potent? Simply make a special request for the mam nem sauce, which is supposed to accompany them but isn't served to non-Vietnamese for fear of freaking them out. (Mam nem is made by blending pineapple juice and small fermented fish until they form a thin brown paste. If the odor of fish sauce puts you off, mam nem will make your eyes spin back in your head. Even Le Bambou owner Hung Tran doesn't like the smell, only tolerating it to get at the taste.)

As you might have gathered, the Vietnamese menu at Le Bambou isn't the easiest endeavor for the non-Vietnamese-reading public. Ordering is made even more difficult for gringos because the pho soups, which we've come to associate with all Vietnamese restaurants, aren't anything special here. This might be explained by the fact that pho is the pride of North Vietnam, whereas Le Bambou owner Hung Tran hails from Hue, a central Vietnamese city with its own unique cuisine.

Hue was Vietnam's capital for the 500 or so years of Vietnam's golden age, serving as seat of government and home to the nation's royal court, and during that time it developed a cuisine and café culture many call the most sophisticated in Vietnam. Longtime followers of Vietnamese food in Minneapolis may recognize some of Le Bambou's dishes from when Hung Tran owned Phó Tàu Bay, the restaurant across from the car wash where Nicollet dead-ends at 28th Street. Tran sold the restaurant nearly two years ago, and although he has owned the café in Butler Drug for five years, he couldn't serve Vietnamese food there until a noncompete agreement he had signed ran out. Le Bambou started serving Vietnamese food late last spring.

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