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.
"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.
The best time to sample the Hue dishes at Le Bambou is during the weekend, after 2:00 p.m., when they serve a series of Hue dishes, including royal pancake, hot and spicy shrimp soup, hot and spicy Hue stew, and others (all cost $5.50). Rounding out my hit parade were a couple of "fresh rice cake" dishes (58 and 59) made by filling flat rice-paper noodles and steaming them until they are soft and yielding. They are delicate as clouds, paired with shredded mint and blanched bean sprouts, and dipped in the sweet vinegar sauce (nuoc nem) that accompanies most Vietnamese salads.
I didn't venture too far into the American half of the menu--which is available only until 2:00 p.m. But I was there one afternoon at 1:30 when they cut off the flow of roast beef, and one regular nearly caused her head to explode, so great was her outrage. I did try a patty melt ($5.50), which was very good. A chocolate malt ($2.80) was particularly creamy, and an appetizer plate of fried chicken and French fries (canh ga chien, $5.50) was all it should be.
Throw in some bowls of Jell-O ($1 for a small one, $1.25 for a large portion), a hot fudge sundae ($2.80), French toast, or a couple of grilled cheeses and you know what you've got? One of the only restaurants I know of where food-fearing kids and foodie parents can both dine happily, and cheaply. Somewhere among City Pages' public there's a barbecue- and Vietnamese-food-loving parent looking for somewhere to take a kid for weekend lunches, and Le Bambou is going to change their lives forever. If you're that person: your lucky numbers are 1, 45, 46, 53, 58, 59, and, on weekends, 66 through 70.
NOT A NECTARINE: I was lounging around a bar one snowy evening a few weeks ago when several of my bosses suggested that what would be more interesting than ordinary columns would be answering reader mail. Of course, being no-good and lazy, I immediately saw the advantage of this approach: You, gentle reader, would be required to compose a portion of my column, for which you would receive no money. Nada. Not a nickel, not a nectarine.
Of course, it might be difficult for you to imagine how this might go. So I've provided some examples:
Q: Dear Dara: I was at Paddy O'Murphy's Irish Ire-stravaganza! with my three-legged girlfriend the other day, and let no one ever say she doesn't dance the prettiest jig in all the land, although some have pointed out quite rightly the trail she traces is somewhat circular. Now, my mother, known throughout suburban Cleveland for her acuity with needlepoint and steamfitting, my mother often said that fisheyes in your Guinness are like spit in the eye. And my beer did have fisheyes, those telltale pockmarks that signal the end of the keg. Should I have said something?
Q: Dear Dara: I've long been a fan of the British dessert trifle and have long wondered: How did you get to be so smart?
A: Oh, pshaw, you shouldn't.
Send questions to Dara Moskowitz, Countess of Cornichons, City Pages, 401 N. Third St., Suite 550, Minneapolis, MN 55401, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
DARA'S POSITION PAPER: Everyone seems to be weighing in on whether Minnesota grocery stores should be allowed to sell wine. But no one ever asks, "What does Dara think?" Well, Dara thinks the following: Hell yeah, grocery stores should sell wine! Why? Because it is a pain in the neck to go driving all over the place when you're trying to put dinner together.
But what about all the little vulnerable liquor stores? Let them sell groceries! Let them stay open as late as they want! Let them sell liquor on whatever day of the week they like--even Sundays! Free the liquor stores from the shackles of repression. I was in a liquor store once where they used to sell individual limes by the cash register, and I asked them where the limes were, and they said they had been forbidden to sell limes, under peril of losing their license, because limes were groceries. I ask you: Are we not men? If you prick us, do we not want some lime in our gin and tonics? And if you say to me, "What about the teenagers?" I will mock you. Look, teenagers don't need chardonnay to get their jollies. They've got a whole world of more attractive options, like beer, wine coolers, mouthwash, cough syrup, and putting their hands over their nose and spinning in circles. Trying to keep teenagers sober has nothing to do with cabernet sauvignon, gewürztraminer, or even zinfandel. Though it might have something to do with E&J Gallo's Wild Vines Blackberry Merlot, so feel free to ban that from grocery stores, liquor stores, opium dens, and the general discourse.
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