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Dining for Dollars

Christopher Gardner

More Bite for a Buck: Dakao's big sandwich with a small price tag.

With its deluxe sandwich deals, tiny Dakao holds its own against multinational burger chains

By Richard Sine

Dako Restaurant in downtown San Jose sells sandwiches for a dollar. That's right, one buck, a solitary greenback, a lonely clam, a single pathetic scraping from the bottom of the Federal Reserve barrel. It's worth it, however, to splurge for the "special" sandwich for $1.50. Served on a baguette with peppers, carrots, rice noodles and a light soy-vinegar dressing, the deluxe sandwiches are sufficient for a light meal. How Dakao manages this feat--matching prices with the multinational burger chain on the next corner that bulk-buys every cow and chicken in Montana--is a mystery.

Walking into Dakao for the first time and seeing those prices on the wall, I briefly felt as if I'd woken up on a different planet. The prices weren't the only reason: Dakao sells a tremendous variety of pastries, rolls, buns, etc. that appear so exotic to naive Westerners like myself that they are barely recognizable as food. (The shop also sells dominoes and playing cards, as well as costume jewelry and air freshener.)

For me, Dakao is less a restaurant than a cultural experience, which makes it almost impossible to review. Even if I'd had the courage to try the rice noodle dessert suspended in green jelly (which I didn't), it would be pretty arrogant to proclaim it was better or worse than any other rice-noodle-in-green-jelly dessert.

I can offer a few general tips, however. Dakao serves plenty of pretty good, very cheap food among the more than 200 items on its sit-down menu. We enjoyed the grilled chicken rice plate with lemon grass and red pepper (No. 92, $3.50), the grilled shrimp and pork with broken rice (No. 100, $4.25), the grilled shrimp on sugar cane with vermicelli rice (No. 79, $6.50), and especially the egg noodle combination dish (No. 54, $3.95). Locals also recommend the coffee drinks.

Less adventurous Westerners may want to be careful around the buffet service--but that's pretty good advice at any takeout place. The menu items are only in Vietnamese, and the food tends toward lukewarm.

Places like Dakao are heartening, and not just because they're so mind-bogglingly cheap. Western cultural imperialism may lure the Eskimos into selling their igloos for televisions, the Chinese into scorching their lungs on Kools, and the women of the Amazon rain forest into forking over a month's wages to Avon ladies. But right here in America, the Vietnamese are sticking to their banh lot. And I'll drink (grass jelly extract) to that.

Dakao Restaurant is located at 98 E. San Salvador St., San Jose, 408/286-7260.

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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