What comes to mind when you think of the words “Vietnamese food”? Probably pho and banh mi, because those soups with their accompanying mountains of fresh vegetables and herb-stuffed, crisp-crusted baguette sandwiches have become part of the U.S. culinary vernacular, and more so every day. They may be like Chinese and Italian food in the ’50s — still slightly exotic, generally not everyday fare for nonexpats — but, well, I don’t have to tell you how comfortably osso buco and moo goo gai pan have slid into the concept of “American” food over the years.
If I go to a pho house, I generally feel compelled to order pho, and ditto for a banh mi shop, so the varied menu and nonspecific theme of Lemongrass Cafe was liberating, in a sense. And ironically, we ended up with some of the cuisine’s other classic dishes.
The Bun Cha Gio ($7.95), for example. If I had to guess, I’d say this one has its origins in bar food; all of the signs are there. At any rate, it’s basically a big bowl of rice vermicelli, topped with fried eggrolls cut in slices. That by itself would make a pretty strange dish, but like most bun (noodle) dishes, it comes with a big mound of herbs and vegetables — crunchy mung bean sprouts, crisp leafy lettuce and shredded basil and mint — which, when mixed in, make a rainbow of color and a riot of flavors. We added some of the vinegar-based sauce served on the side plus a shot of hoisin (sriracha also was available), and it was truly tailored to our taste.
In a place called the Lemongrass Cafe, we figured we’d be well advised to try the lemongrass beef, or Bi Cha Bo Nuong ($8.95), and it was indeed a winner. The beef strips were almost impossibly tender, clearly imbued with the taste of lemongrass, a flavor so ethereal and haunting I wake up craving it at night. Rice on the side was standard, but a little more offbeat was the steamed egg cake, flecked with bits of mushroom and nicely chewy strands of rice noodles.
And we were lured in by a sort of pho/banh mi hybrid, the Banh Mi Bo Koh or Vietnamese-style beef stew, a hearty, slightly fiery mix of beef and vegetables in broth, accompanied by a baguette. It showed both the Chinese and French influences that helped shape Vietnamese cuisine.
For starters, we went with the common and the not-so-much and were impressed with both. The spring rolls, or Goi Cuon ($5.95), were truly stellar renditions of something we’ve had time and again but rarely as well-executed as this. The rice-paper wrappers were snugly wrapped around shrimp, pork, rice noodles, bean sprouts, basil, mint and cilantro. With all of those bounty-of-the-earth flavors going on, it was like an explosion in the mouth (but in a good way), and the addictive peanut sauce served on the side grounded it while somehow managing to gild the lily.
And we tried a dish that was new to us, the Banh Xeo ($7.95), an appetizer that could easily have served as a meal. Dubbed a Vietnamese crepe, it was a thick, bulky fried crepe of rice flour folded around grilled shrimp, pork, mushrooms and bean sprouts and accompanied by a huge mound of fresh greens.
Lemongrass Cafe is in a former 5 and Diner, and the reuse of these big silvery Pullman-like buildings for an ethnic restaurant (Bollywood Grill is another) always has an incongruous effect — almost like something out of a Bollywood movie, to mix metaphors a bit. The interior of Lemongrass, though, is no blast from the past but a streamlined look with subtle colored lighting.
It’s not the atmosphere but the menu that is complex, and because of that, Lemongrass Cafe acquits itself quite nicely.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.Review
Lemongrass Cafe, 8820 S. Eastern Ave.; 463-1300
Pluses: Varied, well-prepared food.
Minuses: Carpeting that needed a good sweeping.