Whether the average American will ever visit Vietnam remains a question. Tours that include stops in that country are now being organized, according to an announcement that I read recently in a newspaper in Singapore, but U.S. citizens (and journalists) are excluded. However, Americans can taste plenty of Vietnamese food on home ground. Although not as numerous as Thai restaurants, Vietnamese eating places are proliferating and they are not confined to Asian neighborhoods.
In Santa Monica, there is Royal Cuisine on Wilshire Boulevard, a popular spot where the waiters are adept at explaining the menu to the uninitiated. The setting is not elaborate, but it is more comfortable and inviting than the sparsely furnished quarters of many Vietnamese restaurants. And there are amenities such as a wine list--a small one, to be sure, but adequate for the food.
My first dinner here was especially rewarding. Royal Cuisine's salted crystal prawns, a dish that is also common in Chinese restaurants, excelled any version I have had. The crunchy prawns--you eat them shell and all--were augmented with browned garlic bits and accompanied by a lemon juice and pepper dip.
Sliced beef wrapped in imported la lot leaves, which could be described loosely as a Vietnamese alternative to grape leaves, offered an interesting blend of seasonings, among them peppercorns.
Like the Koreans, the Vietnamese are skilled barbecuers, and Royal Cuisine's charbroiled pork, the third dish I had that evening, was absolutely wonderful. The sweetening in the marinade made the meat crunchy and caramelized on the outside, while the cubes remained moist and tender inside. The pork came with rice noodles, a basket of lettuce and cilantro and the sweet and sour dipping sauce that accompanies much Vietnamese food.
A few dishes have gone astray, but not seriously. Banh flan (caramel custard), a dessert that reflects the French influence on Vietnamese cookery, was so-so. But banana delight, a bowl of bananas in coconut milk with tapioca noodles, was very interesting and more typically Southeast Asian. Scallops with spiced pepper "hot," as it is titled on the menu, did not match that description. The words spiced pepper would seem to indicate hot chiles or a large dash of black pepper, anything but the mild green peppers that accompanied the scallops in a sweet brown sauce heavily thickened with cornstarch. Perhaps hot referred to the temperature.
The menu-writer skipped any mention of heat in describing squid with ginger and onion, so its mouth-searing spiciness was a surprise. The chiles were only one aspect of a sauce richly flavored with soy, fish and oyster sauces, sugar, garlic, a great quantity of ginger strips and some green onion tops. I liked the dish so well, I tried to copy it at home.
Pork saute with black mushrooms seemed ordinary but pleased others in my group. I was more enthusiastic about sliced beef marinated with lemon grass. The large, thin, ruffly slices were sweet and crunchy at the edges, like the charbroiled pork.
Other dishes I would recommend include the shrimp, chicken and jellyfish salad, the crisp, rice paper-wrapped imperial rolls and the crab with black bean sauce. Cracking and spearing implements accompany the crab, but it is still messy work to extract the meat. However, the sauce is good enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Prices include $6.50 for the beef with lemon grass, $12 for the crab, $9 for the salted crystal prawns and $3.95 for an appetizer portion of the pork- and vegetable-filled imperial rolls. There are also lunch specials and set dinners that guarantee a balanced meal for those inexperienced in ordering this type of food.
Royal Cuisine, 1120 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 394-4762. Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Accepts Visa, MasterCard, Diner's Club and Carte Blanche. Park in the lot behind the restaurant.