My new rule about Vietnamese restaurants is call first. They're always closed when you need them. Vietnam Star closes on Tuesdays, which I discovered last week when I loaded up my truck with hungry accomplices and aimed for University City's outer rim. The place was shut up tight. It was, in fact, so dark and abandoned-looking that there was some question as to whether they were still in business at all. Dejection set in. Naturally we made the best of it with a nice dinner at Riddle's -- between the sautéed spinach and Bonny Doon zinfandel, it proved an excellent emergency-backup scheme -- but I could tell by the glances they exchanged that my spring-roll-starved pals would forever think twice before trusting this hapless restaurant critic again. On the upside, maybe I'll have sunk so low in their esteem that they'll finally quit asking me what the best restaurant in town is.
So the next day, when rounding up Bobbo and Sherri for another stab at it, I had to take it on the chin when they sarcastically wondered whether they would actually get fed this time. Yeah, yeah, whatever. "They're open, already," I lied. Then I called to make sure.
The parking lot was completely empty when we rolled in at 2:30 in the afternoon. "Hmm," commented the ever-succinct Bobbo.
Vietnam Star inhabits what was once the Captain D's (or the Long John Silver's, or something like that) next to Grandpa's on Olive Boulevard. These fast-food conversions always make me a little sad; they never quite manage to scrape off all the residual chain-restaurant fungus. Admit it: You can go to Nobu's 100 times and still suffer a visceral reaction to their IHOP roof.
Which is how I felt as we tottered up Vietnam Star's nautical-looking ramp. "Hmm," remarked Sherri.
Inside, we found that the dining room had been worked over with cheery pastels and amusing fake trees bearing bunches of giant plastic fruits. Along with pink sprigs in bud vases, the ubiquitous ethnic-pop-music soundtrack and an aquarium housing a surly-looking catfish, these decorative touches swept most of the fast-food dust under the rug.
The menu was beyond massive. A bill of fare with some heft is to be expected of any Asian restaurant that claims Chinese food as a sideline, but here were no fewer than 16 pages -- nearly 300 dishes -- comprising every sort of noodle, sauce and generally Asian foodstuff you've ever heard of: Egg foo yong. Curry. Teriyaki. Steak Chunk. Jellyfish. Clay pots. Crab Rangoon. Bun ga xao. Our gracious and astute hostess sensed our Midwestern befuddlement and sought to ease us through our trial with helpful recommendations. She pointed to the fish tank and told us that the stir-fried clams were delicious. She pointed at the menu and told us that the chicken sautéed in butter was delicious. Well, Bobbo and Sherri and I are rebels. Visions of lotus root and eels danced in our heads. So, for better or worse, we complied only with the eggroll suggestion.
These turned out to be the Vietnamese kind and were the best I've ever had. The innards were fresh, the skin was perfectly crisped, and the fish sauce -- an often indelicate condiment of which I am perpetually (and perhaps irrationally) suspicious -- enhanced rather than dominated. Our hostess instructed us on technique: Wrap the eggrolls in the lettuce leaves provided for that purpose, add fresh mint and cucumber, and construct a sort of burrito. What a snack.
Ditto the spring rolls. "If they're sticky," quoth Bobbo, "they're fresh." Ours were sticky. They were also very large and opalescent, and sported stylish scallion tails. No assembly required. Dunked in thick peanut sauce, they were eminently satisfying.
Along about this time, steaming bowls and platters began arriving at a high rate of speed. We had paid little attention to country of origin when ordering (the menu didn't specify, and we forgot to ask), so our lunch emerged as a Chinese-heavy hodgepodge. Of the eight dishes we sampled, five were lovely, two were so-so and only one sucked outright. This was the Sizzling Seafood Delight, which was finished tableside with a noisy flourish reminiscent of tandoori. Unfortunately, the sizzling delight ended there. Shrimp, squid, scallops, faux crab (never a good idea) and a host of vegetables were drowned in one of those thick, white, glutinous sauces that glisten enticingly but never seem to have any flavor. Not only that, there was a disappointing past-its-prime feel to the seafood. Avoid this one.
In the so-so category were eggplant and green beans in black-bean sauce, as well as a lotus-root salad. The vegetable dish exhibited heroic qualities in the al dente department -- the beans had snap and the eggplant wasn't mushy -- but its fortunes were reversed by the sauce, which lacked punch. The other dish was a sort of chef's salad of lotus root, shrimp, pork, carrot and cucumber, topped with peanuts and cilantro. A hint of mint was intriguing, but the pork slices were on the dessicated side, the lotus root was stringy and I struggled with a pervasive fishiness that, although not entirely offensive, was something I'd file in the "acquired taste" cabinet.
But we loved the hot-and-sour soup. In general, hot-and-sour soup is an astonishing invention that, in my book, supersedes gunpowder as China's most important contribution to civilization. That precarious balance of intense flavors, that ingenious melange of textures, that weird and wonky flat-bottomed spoon -- what elegance! what drama! Vietnam Star's was an excellent, spicy rendition: thick and glossy, with tofu, huge black mushrooms and all other relevant constituents basking in deftly executed harmony.
Another pleasant surprise was the Vietnamese dish hu tieu bo kho, or "spicy beef stew rice noodle soup." A huge bowl of fragrant, rich broth brimming with noodles, vegetables and enormous chunks of beef arrived with a platter of fresh herbs, sliced chiles, lime and bean sprouts, which, when added to the soup, created a wild jumble of exotic sensations.
Our absolute favorite was No. 267 -- "Frog Stir Fried in Hot Chili, Garlic & Lemongrass "Hot.'" I have ingested frogs on only one other occasion, and those were battered and deep-fried, with the look and feel of any other fried food. I pretend to be intrepid, but No. 267's completely naked specimens gave me pause. Pale nodules the size of oysters, they had tiny jointed bones that said, unmistakably, "hippity-hop." I braced myself for a swampy jolt of amphibian. Happily, they were delicious in a piquant, garlicky glaze with crisp onions and scallions -- tender and surprisingly sweet. A triumph. Or, as Bobbo put it more than once, "Frogs are good." VIETNAM STAR, 7930 Olive Blvd., 721-8838. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $3.95-$11.95.