Oh, happy satay

It used to be that if you wanted Vietnamese food in this town, you were restricted to the pho noodle shops in South Sacramento or to longtime mainstay Andy Nguyen’s. Then came Lemon Grass and the chance to eat the cuisine in more upscale surroundings. But now the lock on fine Vietnamese cuisine has been broken. Pho Hoa Viet, which has a half-dozen noodle shops in the region, has hit a home run with its newest venture, Bamboo.

Bamboo opened just more than a month ago on the corner of Madison Avenue and Auburn Boulevard. It is a stylish, serene retreat located in what appears to have been a chain-restaurant building with ample parking. Bamboo-themed wallpaper graces the dining room, punctuated by black-and-white photographs of Vietnam. White tablecloths and fresh flowers add to the pleasant ambience. The service is first-rate, friendly and knowledgeable, and the pacing of the food is smooth and unhurried. When my husband commented that the food wasn’t spicy enough for his taste, our server brought us a dish of chili sauce and then, unprompted, presented us with more sauce to go.

If you are addicted to pho, the noodle soup considered to be Vietnam’s national dish, you’re in luck. Bamboo offers pho with your choice of rare steak, flank steak, brisket, tendon, tripe or chicken. Or, you could opt for one of the nine varieties of house noodle soup, with toppings including shrimp, roast duck and barbecued pork and with your choice of rice, egg or clear noodles. Bamboo also specializes in charbroiled meats, which star in the Vietnamese version of a plate lunch and are served over rice or vermicelli noodles.

But it is the dinner entrees, served after 5 p.m., that really stand out. The restaurant offers a wide variety of appetizers, including soups, salads and three types of egg rolls. On a recent visit, we opted for chicken satay and Vietnamese egg rolls. The satay differed from the usual presentation and was more like a brochette. The chicken was marinated with lemon grass, threaded with chunks of onion and green pepper, grilled and served with a sweet dipping sauce. The egg rolls, too, were a refreshing change from the ordinary. The rolls themselves were plump, with ground pork and shreds of carrot, and were served with lettuce, mint and cilantro as well as slices of marinated carrot and jicama. Following the waiter’s instructions, we wrapped the egg rolls in the greens and dipped them in a spicy-sweet sauce. The resulting interplay of textures and flavors perfectly exemplified the complex heart of Vietnamese cuisine.

Our entrees, which came with a bowl of sticky rice, were equally successful. A spicy lemon-grass chicken dish contained strips of charbroiled chicken in a rich sauce accented with finely minced lemon grass and sautéed onions, topped with fresh sprigs of a fleshy herb identified as a native variety of mint. We made quick work of that dish as well as a stir-fried curry with spicy beef.

Bamboo offers a variety of interesting drinks with which to wash down your meal, including the ubiquitous iced coffee and fresh-squeezed lemonade. The restaurant also offers some interesting shakes, including jackfruit, sour sop, avocado, mango and durian; westerners might want to reserve those for dessert. Our waiter talked us into trying a tricolor sweet drink. This proved to be a colorful and exotic concoction of ice layered with coconut milk, red tapioca pearls, sweet bean paste and lime-green stands of stiff gelatin. I found the combination of tastes and textures a little disconcerting, but I was unable to pry it out of the kid’s hands.

You’d think a cushy job like reviewing restaurants would have no real drawbacks. But there is one I hadn’t considered when I applied for this position. Part of the fun of eating out, as an amateur, is finding a great new restaurant and making it yours. But, when you eat out for a living, unless you can afford to eat out every day of the week, you just don’t have that luxury. It’s very rare these days that I get to go back to some of the great places I’ve eaten. In a case like Bamboo, that’s more than a shame. It’s almost a crime.