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Voilà, Di Da

[whitespace] The fish sauce is fishless, but the food at Di Da definitely isn't tasteless

By Andrew X. Pham

THERE'S AN old Vietnamese wives' saying: Food is seasoned in accordance to the cook's character, not the diner's preference. Among Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants, this could not be more true.

The range and complexities of omnivorous flavors a cook must assemble strictly from vegetarian ingredients leave much room for displays of personality as well as virtuosity. Take, for instance, White Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant. Its kitchen's mantra is to replicate meat with deft precision from taste to aroma to texture. Bo De Vegetarian, on the other hand, takes a more roundabout approach where sharpness and flavors are more important than "meat authenticity."

Between these polar opposites is Di Da, an establishment with its own ideas of Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine. At first sight, the place isn't very fetching, just an ordinary takeout/dine-in mom-and-pop joint in a mini strip mall. It has maybe 10 tables and a massive altar hogging up a third of the counter space and dwarfing the steam table. Business is usually slow except for the monthly religious days for Buddhists and Catholics.

Although business was at a trickle on the night of our visit, our starter, a jackfruit salad ($5.95), was surprisingly fresh. It was sided with a chile-tamarind sauce and shingles of ultra-crunchy rice crackers. Almost leafy with chopped basil, the salad was made with fried tofu, wheat-gluten bologna, peanuts and young jackfruit, steamed and chopped into tiny wedges like pineapple. Heaped onto a cracker and drizzled with a little sauce, these morsels made good appetizers.

Eggrolls (50 cents each) were the least glamorous. Their Chinese-style wonton wrapper survived the second flash-fry better than traditional Vietnamese rice paper would have, but their steam table fate made the fillings soggy. The cold vegetable rolls ($1 each) were much better.

Di Da's claypots ($5.95), we discovered, were mildly flavored, using very little caramelized palm sugar and hardly any cracked pepper. Our pork and fish claypots were pale comparisons to Bo De's versions. The kitchen's specialty, sour faux fish soup ($5.50), was seriously deficient in fish as well as in pineapple, yet with all the Chinese celery, tomato and bean sprouts, it worked quite well as a basic, clear soup with blanched vegetables. A rose by any other name ...

The diner's much touted chicken ($5.95) impressed us mostly with its visual authenticity. Tender chunks of imitation chicken, browned on the outside, white inside, were sautéed in a dark Vietnamese-style curry, fairly salty, and dished out on a bed of red leaf lettuce, garnished with a spoon of chopped peanuts. A fair entree, but definitely not the restaurant's best.

Built on a bamboo cross, our faux trout ($6.50) was a strange-looking oval, half an inch thick and crusty golden-brown, its middle wrapped with nori which had turned nearly black through the deep frying. Its accompanying bowl of effervescent ginger dipping sauce, honey-colored and run through with root fibers, provided a nice, faintly sour taste, although the "fishless" chile fish sauce also made a great alternate. The fried nori's tangy saltiness netted a fish taste for this creation.

With quick, friendly service and a comprehensive menu, Di Da's food reflects its personality: simple, low-keyed and very homey. Not too hot, not too salty, not too spicy, not too meat-like.

Di Da is located at 2597 Senter Road in San Jose, 408/998-8826. Open every day, 9am-9pm.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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