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Traveling in Style

Cao Nguyen
Cao Cuisine: Along with an attractive dining room, Cao Nguyen offers a gargantuan menu with nearly 200 traditional Vietnamese menu options.

Authentic flavors and a pleasant atmosphere provide Cao Nguyen patrons with a convenient passport to the Little Saigon dining scene

By Andrew X. Pham

SMACK IN THE heart of the South Bay's Little Saigon lies Cao Nguyen, a new restaurant that combines elements often not seen together in Vietnamese restaurants: pronounced authentic flavors and an attractive dining room.

From its stronghold deep within a recently christened strip mall, this newcomer takes on the fierce local competition with its bright and clean demeanor. The banquet-sized dining room, fronted on three sides by glass cloaked in white vertical blinds, stretches for acres with contemporary tubular dinettes and jade-green carpeting. Spacious elbow room adds much to the leisurely ambiance, not to mention the baby grand piano in the corner (sometimes used for wedding banquets).

For the very first starter, we challenged the kitchen with an order of banh khot ($3.95), the one southern specialty very few restaurants make well. This rice-flour dumpling is partly fried and partly steamed in a mold the size of a mini-cupcake until its center thickens and its surface acquires a golden crispiness. With a single shrimp bedded in its heart and light shrimp powder on its cheek, each dumpling swells with the faint sweetness of coconut puree. Complementary condiments--fresh lettuce, radish and mild chile-lime fish sauce--praise the lovely, exotic nuances of these morsels.

We followed this act with grilled quail (#5, $6.95), toasting these moist, perfectly grilled avians--marinated in fish sauce, black pepper and turmeric--with a round of Corona ($2.50).

Despite the fact that the house beef salad (#24, $7.95) was our third appetizer, our friendly but undiscerning waitress convinced us to take a large order without informing us that "large" meant two orders. Rice papers, lettuce and a soy-based dip braced a mountain of rare beef slices, slightly blanched in ginger broth and tossed with sesame seeds. Although this appetizer was delightful, the portions overwhelmed.

Faced with nearly 200 menu entries, we felt compelled to attempt a thorough sampling. We tried smoked duck ($8.95), sautéed frogs ($8.25) and claypot catfish ($5.95). Though very fatty, the duck was good. The onion and turmeric sauté did not flatter the frog as well as the usual butter-frying. The catfish, a true Vietnamese peasant dish, yielded three meager catfish steaks in stewed fish sauce fortified with dark caramelized sugar and accented with cracked peppercorns. Decent but a little too sweet.

For beef lovers, bo nuong vi (#95, $12.95, serves two) rates as the most satisfying and entertaining entree on the menu. Beneath a cap of julienned red onion, gossamer sheets of raw beef--lightly teased in a fish sauce and garlic marinade--layer a broad platter blissfully primed for a grilling right at the table using a convex cast-iron skillet.

The key here is to just barely cook the meat, leaving traces of pink on each slice to ensure tenderness. Each diner wraps his own roll with the moist rice paper, choosing his choice of accompaniment from a selection of rice vermicelli, herbs, green banana, cucumber, radishes, lettuce and galangal. The proper dipping sauce is an ashen-purple gravy of fermented shrimp paste, fish sauce, chiles, lime, sugar and puréed pineapple. Sweet, salty and spicy, this regional delicacy carries a heady pungency and a musky aftertaste that may be too much for some. A simple chile fish sauce is a viable alternative.

When the kitchen confused our order, a sea bass soup (#131, $9.95), and prepared instead the sea bass lau (#137, $17.95--serves four as a main entree), the waitress and the owner persuaded us to accept the latter (at the higher price--a serious faux pas). After a long moment of awkward silence, we gamely acquiesced--and soon regretted it.

Served in a chafing dish, the lau disappoints with its overcooked tomatoes and bland broth. Cooked whole, the dorsal section of the sea bass turned out a little tough. The bean sprouts and crown of caramelized onion, though welcome touches, simply could not rescue this blunder.

Though we haven't managed to ferret out every dish on the menu, the consistency speaks well of the kitchen's capabilities. Authentic flavors are plentiful at Cao Nguyen, but with just a little more grace and sensibility the management can cultivate something greater than merely good food.

Cao Nguyen

Cuisine: Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese
Ambiance: very casual
Menu: individual entrees $4­$10; specialties for parties of four or more $13­$29
Hours: Mon.­Thu., 9am­9pm; Fri.­Sun., 9am­10pm
Address: 2549 S. King Road, #A-16, San Jose
Phone: 408/270-9610

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From the January 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro

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