Vietnamese cuisine, which probably has the most restrained hand with herbs and spices in Southeast Asia, has become much more prominent within the last decade as Vietnamese refugees have filtered into the States. Some restaurants stick to traditional, popular items such as pho (a Vietnamese noodle dish) while others of these recently reviewed restaurants serve decked-out Vietnamese/French hybrids. All prices exclude drinks.
AU BON TEMPS DE SAIGON (7147 Katella Ave., Stanton, (714) 828-9300). This restaurant serves French food with a kind of Vietnamese accent. It's a modest mom-and-pop Vietnamese place with relatively sophisticated Oriental prints on the wall and a brisk, eager proprietress. Its system is to offer a different lunch and dinner menu of 12 entree selections that rotates weekly through the month. Selections include lemon-grass-flavor chicken in fish sauce casserole, grilled pork marinated in fish sauce and garlic, and chicken in hoisin sauce. Every once in a while there is a dish with a genuine blend of French and Vietnamese ideas, such as a filet of fish in Saigon Provencal sauce--fish sauteed in tomatoes and onions subtly enriched with Vietnamese fermented fish sauce. Lunch buffet, Fri. and Sat., is an all-you-can-eat affair. Open Mon.-Sat. for lunch, Tues.-Sun. for dinner. MC, V. Dinner for two: $9-$13.
AU FOUNTAINBLEU (12130 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (213) 826-8177). Au Fountainbleu impresses immediately with its quiet elegance. Gilt-framed scenes of Paris, ornate chandeliers, mirrors and a profusion of greenery create an ambiance far removed from contemporary California high-tech. French-bred chef Jean-Henri Hubert is of Corsican and Vietnamese descent, so appropriately the menu is divided into a French side and an "exotic" side that offers his interpretation of Vietnamese and other Asian dishes. Exotics include Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with crab and shrimp; ginger-flavored beef teriyaki and Javanese chicken with pineapple sauce. Flan and a very rich chocolate mousse are the desserts that go with set dinners. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner daily. Reservations advised on weekends. MC, AE, V. Parking lot and street parking. Dinner for two: $25-$30.
MAY HONG RESTAURANT (10561 Bolsa Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 554-0974). This is a slightly funky mom-and-pop place with the usual Vietnamese newspaper rack by the door and a glass full of chopsticks at every table, where the tape machine plays melancholy Asian pop songs and once in a while a little Mozart. It gets quite busy for dinner on weekends, full of enthusiastic Vietnamese customers and the occasional Anglo who is a Vietnam hand and enthusiastic for the old days in Saigon. No playing safe with noodles and soups here. Right after Next Courses of Beef is a listing of five or six goat dishes. Goat in sour sauce is pretty good, one of the many things you make into a Vietnamese taco with the rice paper, lettuce, herbs and pickled vegetables provided. There's also "BBQ goat" and steamed goat and "fresh sliced goat." But goat's not all. There's a chewy item called snail rice soup, and "eel hot and pot"--a Mongolian hot pot cooked at your table in a sort of soup pot built around a chimney loaded with blazing charcoal briquettes. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Cash only. Dinner for two: $5.50-$26.
PHO LE LOI (640 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 680-4644.) This Vietnamese restaurant has branched out from its original extensive pho and noodle-dish menu to offer various combination Vietnamese dinners and a special Vietnamese meal composed entirely of beef. It takes at least two people to tackle the amount of food that is included in dac biet bo 7 mon (special seven courses of beef). But the outpouring of beef doesn't get monotonous--on the contrary, it is fascinating to see what variety can be achieved with a single ingredient. And for diversity, the vegetable plate that accompanies the beef courses includes strips of carrot and jicama, bean sprouts, sliced cucumber and thin slices of hard green banana imported from Hawaii. Open daily 8 a.m.-9:00 p.m. Cash only. Dinner for two: $9.