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Ancient Vietnamese Secrets

Christopher Gardner

History Lesson: The Central Vietnamese cuisine of Quang Da draws elements from both mountain-dwelling and fishing cultures.

Quang Da serves competent cuisine at bargain prices

By Andrew X. Pham

CENTRAL VIETNAM, a long strip of land known as the staff that bears the weight of the nation, embodies everything the country was before the war and all its subsequent hardships. The land is lush and arid, mountainous and flat, rich and poor all at once; its people are charming, enduring, simple, complex, harsh--even cruel, not unlike the land. The food, too, is a legacy in kind.

It is an ancient cuisine, spawned long before the northern and southern styles found their footing. It drew elements from many mountain tribes and from the fishing culture that blossomed along the prosperous coast. The food bears neither the Chinese influence that suffused the northern cuisine nor the salty and spicy inclinations of the southern school. Distinct yet full of nuances, this regional cuisine makes for a worthy subject of study.

Two years ago, exploring this cuisine would have meant several trips zigzagging across the South Bay to different restaurants, sandwich shops and cafes. Not anymore. Quang Da Restaurant has amassed a comprehensive and competent repertoire of Central Vietnam cuisine in an atmosphere accessible to all diners.

Sitting on the corner of Eighth and Santa Clara streets in San Jose, the restaurant is clean, uncomplicated, and small but not cramped. White vertical blinds veil the bright dining room, with its comfortable chairs and plain tables topped with condiments. Just outside one bank of windows, what appear to be decorative potted plants are actually exotic herbs, including a number of rare specimens. All are served with various dishes in the restaurant.

Thirty-one selections fill the menu, choices ranging among tapas, appetizers, snacks, noodle soups, rice dishes and specialty entrees. Fortunately, a photo album accompanies the menu for those yet to become acquainted with the cuisine.

Mi Quang Vinh Dien (#15, $4.25) works well as an introduction for noodle-lovers. Doused with a pork and crab stock that serves more as a light sauce than a soup, a very generous knot of yellow rice noodles, flat and long, provides the muscle for the mix of bean sprouts, cilantro, onions, scallions, peanuts, chopped lettuce, pork and shrimp. A mellow but savory entry.

The jackfruit salad (#18, $3.25) is meant to be shared. Slivers of young jackfruit, steamed and shredded, combine with bits of pork in a toss of vinegar, jalapeños, peanuts, basil and mint. Cracker-like wedges of crunchy rice flats, toasted and crusty with sesame, literally carry the salad. Each diner takes a piece of the rice cracker, piles it with salad and eats it as a finger food.

Another finger food, banh xeo (#22, $4.50), an entree, packs more flavor than the jackfruit salad. This crepe comes in two forms, vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Pan fried to a crispy sunflower yellow, this half-moon wonder contains, among other things, bean sprouts, shrimp, onion and pork. In Central Vietnam tradition, the crepe is broken at the table and then wrapped in rice paper with a selection of pickled vegetables and herbs, and dipped into a gravy of soy bean paste, fish sauce, peanuts and pork fat. Very unique and tasty.

As for dessert, the lotus seed, mixed bean and coconut milk drink ($1.75) offers the best segue to the flavors of the main meal. With every item on its menu priced between $3 and $4.50, Quang Da offers a bargain-priced yet exotic culinary jaunt.

Quang Da is located at 348 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose, 408/297-3402. Open Mon.­Fri., 10am­10pm; Sat.­Sun., 9am­10pm; closed Wed.

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of Metro

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