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Vegging Out

[whitespace] Bo De-licious

By Andrew X. Pham

MY FIRST MEMORY of vegetarian cuisine harks back a few decades to a sleepy fishing town on the southern coast of Vietnam where I'd often spent summers with my grandmother at her seaside villa. Grandma, a devout Buddhist, had recurring fits of week-long spirituality, forcefully converting the entire household into vegetarians. An lat--eat bland--the practice was called. Initially, I dreaded the prospect because, the way Grandma uttered it, an lat rang with asceticism and punishment.

And it was torture, indeed, for in Grandma's book pious vegetarianism meant rice, steamed tofu and boiled vegetables for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I could tell the torture was nearing an end when Grandma couldn't stand her own food anymore and marched everyone down to the village vegetarian diner. I learned there that Vietnamese vegetarian fare certainly wasn't bland, and vegetarianism was anything but ascetic.

Bo De Vegetarian Restaurant in downtown San Jose reminds me much of that village diner, rich in creative flavors, humility and camaraderie. It is a small establishment, clean and plain to the point of being nondescript. A poster of Buddha graces the back wall, but on certain days of the month, Catholics and Buddhists, monks and nuns alike--as in my Grandma's favorite veggie eatery in the old country--can be seen sharing tables.

We started the meal with a lovely trio of spring rolls ($2.99), fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, mint, rice vermicelli and fried tofu wrapped in chewy rice paper. The accompanying sauce, made with fresh lime, salt, coconut juice, sugar, chile paste, garlic and rice vinegar, was one of the most brilliant faux chile fish sauces we'd ever tasted. Another appetizer we enjoyed was banh beo ($4.50), rice dumplings topped with faintly sweet bean paste and sided with a knoll of blanched bean sprouts laced with cilantro and encrusted with browned onion. The entire ensemble was powdered with faux shrimp crumbs.

On the high recommendation of Mr. Phat Le, the owner-waiter, we also had an order of the diced beef salad ($7.95). The beef cubes were actually char-broiled imitation meat resembling tofu more than beef in both texture and taste. But they were good when served on a bed of red leaf lettuce, tomatoes and fronds of vinegary onion.

Best of all was the eggplant claypot, an intensely flavored dish. The carmelization of coconut juice and soy sauce created a unique aroma and taste that embodies peasant cookery.

First-timers should trust Mr. Le's advice, and vegetarians who eschew faux meats can easily ask for vegetable substitutes. The kitchen is very accommodating and quite adept in green matters.

Bo De Restaurant is located at 970 S. First St., San Jose (408/287-0938). Absolutely no libations served. No MSG. Open Tue.-Sat. 10am-9pm; Sun. 10am-8pm.

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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