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Photograph by Chris Revell

Still Life With Spice: Dalat continues to serve Vietnamese treats that are authentic and unadulterated.

Sautéed for Greatness

Dalat, the second-oldest Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose, puts diners in a beatific state

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

WHEN MR. San Jose, the recently crowned bodybuilding champ, wants to eat, he heads for Dalat, his favorite Vietnamese restaurant, located in close proximity to San Jose State University, where he goes to school. Recently, champion Duc Huynh took us to this 26-year-old neighborhood eatery for a taste of his favorite dishes, which slid from the hands of our waiter, each one of them, like aces from a hot deck.

Still owned and operated by its founding family, Dalat has the notable distinction of being the second Vietnamese restaurant to open in the San Jose area. Duc told us that "anybody who's Vietnamese knows about this place." The food remains authentic and unadulterated by the changing fads that often keep the culinary world hopping on one foot, rather than dancing on two.

Dalat pulsates with the type of warmth close families enjoy, offering food that calls the taste buds to attention, with flavors that linger long and pleasingly. The restaurant itself takes the form of a clean, tidy diner with native Vietnamese touches that hold you tight like the arms of a great loving aunt. A beautiful panel depicting cranes in graceful poses enchants these humble digs with its metaphor for the turning seasons.

The tables are neatly kept, spacious and fully equipped with hot sauces, chopsticks and other dining essentials. We took the round table in back and settled in, slipping out of time and space as we worked our way through our dinner. By meal's end, my forehead ran with perspiration, and the cobwebs of my thoughts had been whisked away.

Arriving one on the heels of the other were the ethereal Goi Cuon ($3.75), pork and shrimp and lettuce wrapped in rice paper, and the Cha Gio, golden Vietnamese spring rolls, so crisp they rang and crunched with each bite. A peanut-style dipping sauce, plus the traditional spicy fish sauce (nuoc mam), was served along with platters of fresh lettuce, basil and cilantro. We deployed these leafy enhancements not only with the rolls but also with the Nem Nuong ($6.50). Skewered and grilled ground, seasoned pork was cut into juicy morsels and fashioned into a burrito of sorts with moistened rice paper and savory greens. Once assembled, we dipped these into the piquant sauces.

Duc's favorite is the No. 48, which we ordered and split among the four of us. Fresh (not dried) rice noodles were simmered to silky strands in a crisp broth full of jumbo prawns, slices of pork and crab claws clipped of their shells so the sweet meat could be easily removed. This soup hit the veins with rivers of nutrients that recharge mind and body.

Never before have I enjoyed such delicious fried prawns (Tom Lan Bot, $6.95). The batter that encased these fresh, succulent large shrimp was perfect and crunchy and glowing with yellow golden color as if mixed with saffron. With each pass through the fish sauce, every bite lifted us to greater levels of pleasure.

Of Dalat's many sautéed dishes, we sampled the Ga Xao Sa Ot ($7.95), chicken infused with lemon grass. It arrived in a mist of lemony scents. The Com Bo Luc Lac ($6.95), or tender steak sautéed with garlic and onion, rested on a bed of lettuce and tomato, not rice as the menu described. We picked morsels of meat from each dish and savored the pure flavors unmasked by heavy sauces or flavorings.

Glasses full of sweet soy beans, red beans and jack fruit with shaved ice, cream and other sweet additions made refreshing desserts (all $2.25) that none of us could resist. We passed them around with spoons and straws in hand.

By that time, I had achieved a beatific state of mind. Food can do that. To enhance our sweet departure was the presentation of a bill with affordable prices, especially considering those luxurious prawns.

Address: 408 E. William St., San Jose
Phone: 408.294.6989
Hours: Daily 7am-8pm
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Price Range: $4-$14
No credit cards

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From the September 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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