Golden Deli, you may not need to be told, is one of the best Vietnamese noodle shops in Southern California, a well-worn citadel of banh hoi and pho in a busy San Gabriel mini-mall, a restaurant so popular that its customers wait up to an hour for a spot at one of the sticky, cramped long tables. It is kind of low on the usual amenities, without cold beer, without much in the way of decor, without really anything on its menu that might take longer than five minutes or so to order, cook and serve. And it’s cash only, take it or leave it. But Golden Deli has the best cha gio, fried Vietnamese spring rolls, in the observable universe, and the owners know it.
So when Golden Deli opened up Vietnam House right across the street, it was logical to assume that the second restaurant would be more or less a slightly larger clone of the first, a mechanism to work still more thousands in per weekend through the regimen of spring rolls and strong iced coffee.
And Vietnam House does serve almost exactly the same dishes: gently spiced pho dac biet, thick with bits of brisket, tripe, tendon, and raw beef that cooks just in the heat of the broth; bun, rice-noodle salads tossed with shredded herbs, toasted garlic and arrays of charbroiled pork; shrimp paste grilled on skewers of sugar cane; spicy, gamy bowls of bun bo Hue with pig‘s trotters; the rice-noodle mats called banh hoi that you wrap into lettuce bundles with grilled beef, broiled meatballs and lots of herbs. The cha gio are exactly as fine; the fresh spring rolls, goi cuon, uncooked rice-paper wraps with shrimp and sliced pork, are exactly as bad. But Vietnam House almost functions as the anti–Golden Deli, going so far as to accept credit cards, serve beer, and wow the crowds with fish tanks and a big poster of Niagara Falls. The tables are large and well-spaced; the air conditioning works. There are monthly specials — I liked the duck noodles with pickled vegetables in a sweetly spicy broth — and a well-meaning if not particularly interesting version of the eggy Vietnamese crepe banh xeo. You can get baked mudfish if you want it, and with the appetizers there are big stacks of rice paper to wrap the grilled meat in, as well as stacked lettuce leaves.
Almost as a public service, Vietnam House prepares bo bay mon, the fabled Vietnamese seven-course beef dinner that was a specialty in this dining room when it was still called Pagode Saigon. The dinner is a well-worn ritual, honed in country restaurants before the war and served in an unbending succession of courses whose composition probably hasn’t changed in 30 years: sliced raw beef that you cook at the table by swishing it a few seconds in a pot of vinegar broth boiling merrily on a brazier; steamed pate studded with clear noodles and served with shrimp chips; gristly grilled meatballs; tightly rolled slivers of steak; charred beef tucked inside vaguely narcotic la lot leaves; marinated beef salad; beef porridge.
The table salad, the pile of herbs served with bo bay mon (among other things), here includes, in addition to cilantro and lush sprays of purple Vietnamese basil, the long, narrow, unusually pungent leaf called rau ram, the sharply bitter sawtooth herb — it looks like dandelion foliage redesigned as a weapon of war by a particularly malevolent videogame designer. There are marinated matchsticks of carrot and daikon, paper-thin slices of cucumber, bean sprouts, and thin slices of something that appears to be raw eggplant but is actually a special kind of Vietnamese plantain. The rice paper comes in a moistened stack, and until you get the hang of it, it‘s pretty hard to peel off a single piece without tearing. The funky pineapple-anchovy sauce nam mem is served in a communal jar, from which you spoon out a portion into a little private bowl and add chile or not as you please. Bo bay mon is labor-intensive. Until you get bored with the process halfway through the meal, you wrap each bite of food into a little rice-paper burrito with herbs and vegetables, then dip the bundle into a dish of sauce.
The surprising thing is that Vietnamese House has been able to improve on the basic formula, to furnish, for example, a slightly better grade of raw beef to swish through the vinegar and an amazingly rich beef broth to plump out the rice porridge, a bit of tartness in the la lot rolls and an elegant, elevated spicing in the steamed pate. This is food that was made for beer. Especially when you encounter the herb that resembles a giant pennywort leaf and is guaranteed to suck the moisture out of your mouth as effectively as a dental implement.
”I haven’t seen that herb before,“ I told the waiter.
”Old people sometimes call that the ‘fishing herb,’“ he said. ”Probably because it tastes a little like fish.“
710 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; (626) 282-6327. Open Mon., Wed., Thurs. 10 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri.–Sat till 10 p.m., Sun. till 9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $14–$24. AE, MC, V.