Lemongrass Cafe

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.

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