Restaurant Review - A taste that lingers

Vietnam House proves there's more than noodles and tripe

Would you like some hot tea? I'll clear the table; you can stay here for a while and read a book. Of all the things that have been said to me by restaurant personnel, this is, without question, the best. It happened after my first meal at Vietnam House.
Yes, finally there is an addition to the local Vietnamese restaurant row on Buford Highway that is not another phe house. Not that there is anything wrong with phe houses — they are as good to have around as the marvelously satisfying and ridiculously inexpensive meal-in-a-bowl around which they are built. It's just that there is more to the cuisine than long-simmered broth with noodles and tripe (or chicken or pork or flank).
The much-loved Bien Thuy not far away has been the standard-bearer for Vietnamese food lo these many years. The food there is always pleasing, and the funky décor is a trip, with its hut-like booth enclosures, multicolored lights and assorted American kitsch. Vietnam House, as low-key and airy as Bien Thuy is cluttered, contrasts visually in every way.
Lacquered rosewood pedestal tables gleam under rosy ceiling light. Walls painted in pale Wedgwood hues appear to float.
The most eye-catching element is a beautifully restored piece of machinery. It's the traditional Vietnamese mode of transportation: a chrome and red leather, bicycle-powered, single seat carriage. It holds pride of place in the corner of the small non-smoking section, under a painting of the original Vietnam House in Ho Chi Minh City. (A non-smoking section that is surprisingly effective, I might add. Especially given the Vietnamese penchant for cigarettes.) Lovely watercolors set into the walls and illuminated by brass gallery lights all came from Vietnam.
The kitchen dearly wants its guests to love its food, so everything comes to the table mild, along with various sauces to perk things up. The sauces - concocted of fish sauce and garlic and lime, among other things - are mysterious elixirs and pastes to be swirled in or sprinkled over .
But not everything needs to be worked over — the aromatic charcoal-grilled shrimp, for example. The faintly orange sauce that seeps into the rice beneath makes the whole dish more festive. Barbecue is lean and sweet, a tasty foil to the grilled foods.
Shellfish and seafood are everywhere, simmered, steamed, roasted, in one of several fondues, and above all, in any of the marvelous pho-like soups.
At dinner, Vietnam House offers one of the most fun, most interesting things in all the culinary world, the seven-course beef dinner ($16.95 per person, with a minimum order of two).
The operative word for virtually all the food, however, is tender. From the plump spring rolls — larger than most — to the transparent rice noodles and the broken rice, nothing has been overcooked or left to sit out (and expire).
Needless to say, Vietnam House would not be a place where one would want to linger if the food were not good. But the food is quite good. So when you go, you might want to take a book.
__Vietnam House, 4186 Buford Highway in the Little Saigon shopping center, 404-315-9979. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, 10 a.m.-midnight. Monday-Thursday, lunch from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner from 5-11 p.m. Inexpensive. Average price of dinner entrée: $13. Credit cards (but not American Express as of this writing). Dress: casual. Ambiance: welcoming. Small no-smoking section that actually works. Wheelchair accessible.