The menu and decor at Lemon Grass are similar to those of many of the close to a dozen Vietnamese restaurants around St. Louis -- a smattering of ethnic art to set the mood, simple furniture and, in this case, a sprawling selection of food, with more than 100 dinner selections (counting No. 2b and the four choices on the markerboard). There are larger entrees, generally in the $6-and-up range, selected from categories of bo (beef), de (lamb), ga (chicken), heo (pork), do bien (seafood) and do chay (vegetarian); the last category includes 11 selections, with and without tofu.
For the bare-bones budget, there are also numerous noodle-based items, mostly under 5 bucks, as well as a choice of cahn (thin-broth), pho (rice-noodle), hu tieu (clear-noodle) and mi (egg-noodle) soups, all basically under $4.
The interior of Lemon Grass is a tad unusual, with two-tone walls of sky blue over a darker blue but an almost kelly green used to trim the entry to the kitchen and the cash-register area. On the evening we visited, everyone was being seated in a single room right inside the door, although it appeared that the adjacent storefront also had a full room of tables.
Two other elements of the atmosphere were worthy of note: a rich, tantalizing aroma in the air, probably incense but almost like smoke from a grill using aromatic woods for roasting; and the cold draft that filled the room every time the front door was opened on that chilly evening. The former really added to the exotic feel, but I'm hoping they can figure out some method of fixing the latter.
As for the food, our meal was good, fresh, competently prepared, well-spiced Vietnamese cooking, complemented by exceptionally friendly service that shone except for one small incident.
My general rule the first time at a Vietnamese place is to order the goi cuon as a standard appetizer and the weirdest thing elsewhere on the appetizer menu. Goi cuon ($1.95) is an fresh spring roll wrapped in a translucent white leaf called rice paper, with a filling of fresh lettuce, mint and cucumber along with shrimp, roast pork and thin noodles. The rice paper should be room temperature and not at all slimy, and the internal ingredients should be fresh and colorful. Here Lemon Grass passed with flying colors, with the dipping sauce both spicy-hot and nutty.
Our "weird" choice was the goi ngo sen ($2.50), a lotus-root-based salad that appeared as a layering of very thinly sliced shrimp, pork and cilantro atop a nest of crispy, sweet-scallion-like lotus root, peanuts and carrots, with a lemon sauce to perk everything up. It's a thoroughly unusual but pleasing combination of flavors and textures, and it's also just about the perfect size for a light lunch for one person.
For one entree, we tried the tom (shrimp) xao nam dong co (with black mushrooms and steamed vegetables, $8.50). The half-dozen or so medium shrimp were mixed with shiny, juicy black mushrooms, carrots and onions, then surrounded with bright-green florets of lightly steamed but hot broccoli. The selection wasn't asterisked among the "hot and spicy" selections, but it did leave a tingly sensation on our lips.
We had intended to try the de nuong xa, or house-grilled lamb, as our other entree, but our waitress needed to ask for entree numbers instead of writing down the names and so we got the de xao lan, or curried lamb ($8.25), instead. No great loss here -- the lamb was just slightly thicker than shaved and exceptionally tender, and its inherently rich flavor was augmented by the sweetness of a coconut sauce and the spice of the curry.
Many Southeast Asian desserts at first appear a bit out there to Western sensibilities (like the popular mung bean in coconut milk), and Lemon Grass extended our horizons even more with final courses of banana pudding ($2.50) and sweet-potato flan ($2.95), both of which were spectacular. The "pudding" was closer to a banana leather, triangles of very dense and rich banana flavor floating in tapioca and coconut milk. The same base was used for the flan, which looked like a fresh-baked biscuit but had the texture of sweet-potato mousse.
No alcohol is available yet at Lemon Grass, so either carry your own in or avail yourself of the double-strong (in sweetness and tartness) Vietnamese lemonade or the rich, condensed-milk-sweetened Vietnamese coffee.
Vietnamese food no longer has novelty value in St. Louis, but it's one of the best budget values going, and Lemon Grass serves it well.
3216 S. Grand Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.- 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.