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Bach to the Basics

[whitespace] Bach Dang
Christopher Gardner

Super Bowl: The classic Vietnamese combo of rice vermicelli, grilled meat, cilantro and peanuts makes for a tasty appetizer or a light meal.

Whether one wants to snack or feast, Bach Dang dishes up the right portions, from appetizers to full meals

By Andrew X. Pham

'An choi hay an no?" is a question the proprietor of Bach Dang often asks her new patrons. This translates as "Eat play or eat full?" and it sums up what defines a good Vietnamese diner, indicating that the kitchen is capable of dishing up one-plate meals or a full four-course dinner with appetizer and soup. Either way the food must be inexpensive and tasty.

On the flip side of the low prices is the setting: a cheesy color scheme of lavender, black and white, and bistro tables without linen. A touristy collection of Indian trinkets and fishnets tries to capture a coastal ambiance at odds with an '80ish disco configuration. On the whole, the place is quirky. It hides in an ethnic strip mall and seats just over 50 guests. Service is competent and casual, not great and not particularly clued in on the menu. But good food is something patrons can bank on.

The 119-item menu is broken down into six sections. Appetizers are generally good. Breakfast porridges and noodles are actually eaten at any time of day. Individual rice plates tend to be the most popular because they average around $5 a plate and the kitchen steams good white rice--something that can't be said for three out of four Asian diners. The stir-fried noodles (rice noodles, crispy or soft egg noodles) are Chinese-influenced dishes. "Family Dinners" are various main courses, including soups, clay pots and pan-fried dishes, suitable for two or more diners. Last are chafing dishes geared to large-group dining.

For starters, the kitchen makes decent banh khot (No. 6, $4.75), rice flour dumplings the size of golf balls, partly fried and partly steamed until the center thickens and the surfaces acquire a golden crispiness. Each dumpling, fattened with a shrimp and powdered with shrimp flakes, swells with flavor when savored with fresh lettuce and lime-garlic fish sauce. The real kudos, however, are for the authentic Vietnamese eggrolls. The cooks roll a filling of ground pork, cat-ear mushrooms, carrots and vermicelli in real rice paper and not the Chinese flour-wrap intended for wontons. These eggrolls fry up crispier and, at the same time, more chewy than the ones in flour wrappers.

Other good appetizers are shredded green papaya and fresh basil salad with beef jerky and soy-jerked liver (No. 2, $3.25)--served with a vinegary soy sauce that can be ignited with chile paste. On the lighter side are salad rolls (No. 3, $3.25 for three rolls), steamed shrimp, pork, lettuce, rice vermicelli wrapped in moist rice paper and served with a side of peanut hoisin sauce--good eating with Saigon Beer (imported, $2.25).

Noodle soups here rate moderate, and the curries are not worth the trouble. The sure winners for novices to Vietnamese cuisine are rice noodles with grilled prawns (No. 31, $5.25), shrimp paste on sugarcane slivers (No. 34, $5.50) and grilled shrimp and onion-wrapped marinated beef (No. 32, $6.50). Moist rice paper with either sugarcane-shrimp-paste drumsticks (No. 48, $6.75) or grilled pork balls (No. 49, $6.25) makes for fun eating: the diner gets to wrap his own meal with the grilled meats, pickled carrot, daikon and a selection of fresh vegetables including lettuce, mint, cilantro and onion. All the aforementioned dishes are accompanied by a large side of fresh vegetables and chile fish sauce.

The best soup in the house is the sour catfish (No. 87, $6.75 serves four), traditionally eaten in the same rice bowl with a small scoop of white rice. Bodied with fish sauce, the sweet-and-sour catfish soup ($6.50, serves two to four) is fairly good, full of tomato, cilantro, sprouts, Chinese celery, pineapple and a generous portion of catfish. Ideally, the tamarind broth sharply splices vegetable sourness and natural fish sweetness, but, here it tastes sugary because the kitchen, unfortunately, yields to the ease of canned pineapple.

Other good items include tamarind prawns (No. 94, $8.95) and salty pork spare ribs (No. 97. $5.75). Unshelled yet butterflied, the prawns are sautéed in a sweet-sour sauce. The fatty, bite-size spare ribs, simmered with soy and fish sauces, come unadorned on a little saucer with a dusting of black pepper. Both dishes are tasty, simple renditions of Vietnamese country cooking.

Desserts, including sweet bean and tapioca, are served in goblets with shaved ice and generous pours of coconut milk: rich, refreshing and creamy.

Bach Dang is an authentic, solid and reliable performer, good and inexpensive enough for regular visits.

Bach Dang

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Ambiance: Casual, basic diner
Menu: $3.25-$8.95
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 9am-9pm, Fri.-Sat. 9am-10pm
Address: 1150 Story Road (corner of McLaughlin Avenue), San Jose
Phone: 408/279-8910

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From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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