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Counter Intelligence

Thanh My: : Wrapper's Delight

July 14, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

Here we are again in San Gabriel, a couple blocks past the big Chinese mall and right before you get to the brand-new Chinese strip malls of Rosemead. And here we are at Thanh My, a fancier brother of one of the first Vietnamese noodle shops in Chinatown, which is decked out with crab tanks and marble, and skeins of Christmas lights all year round. There is something comforting about Vietnamese food on hot summer afternoons--piles of leafy herbs, cool dipping sauces, iced filter coffee, dripping-cold bottles of beer. July is made for lemonade soda, the beverage of choice here--unless you like mung-bean drinks--fresh juice, granulated sugar, ice and a bottle of Canada Dry club soda, mixed together to taste.

Consider the well-set Vietnamese table: a plate of fresh lettuce leaves, a bowl of sweet fish sauce, squirt bottles of sriracha chile sauce and hoisin, a basket of herbs. There's a great basket of herbs at Thanh My, flowering basil tops and cilantro and fresh sprigs of mint, purple Vietnamese basil and a spikier, lemony basil, a long, narrow leaf with a strong metallic taste, a small pile of sliced raw cucumber and another pile of bean sprouts.

The best thing here is the homemade rice vermicelli, banh hoi , cooled into noodle webs and cut into flat squares, garnished with scallion and chopped peanuts, which you wrap into little lettuce-leaf burritos with handfuls of the herbs and bits of barbecued beef, charbroiled pork, chopped spring rolls, or bouncy grilled meatballs made with both beef and pork. (If you order dac biet ba mon an , you can cook everything yourself in an iron pan at table, but grilled food somehow tastes better when it comes from the kitchen here.)

There are chunks of chao tom to wrap with the noodles, shrimp pounded with herbs into paste, formed into sort of a Vietnamese kebab around a stick of fresh sugar cane and grilled--improbably light, delicately sweetened by the juice of the cane.

But man does not live by lettuce wraps alone; banh trang must be considered also: rice-paper wraps for whole fish, roasted in foil with chopped peanuts, scallions and lime; for beef, briefly swished through a boiling vinegar bath at table.

Thanh My serves the usual noodle soups, a fine, clear version of the Saigon noodle specialty hu tieu , a murky and strong-flavored version of the famous Northern beef noodle soup pho dac biet , but they're not the best things on the menu. And oddly enough, though the restaurant is thoroughly Vietnamese-Chinese, few of the Chinese dishes--especially the stir-fries--are all that good: mushy frog's legs fried with a dusting of underseasoned spicy salt; clams fried with mint in a brown gravy that is nearly dense enough with cornstarch to support a chopstick upright; a nondescript seafood hot pot; a dish of sticky five-flavor shrimp that tastes mostly of sugar.

The classic Vietnamese-Chinese stir-fry, lemon-grass chicken, is a little better, heady with black pepper, fragrant with exotic spice, and I was once talked into ordering a giant lobster, the size of a B-52 bomber, that had been fried in a wonderful hot curry, but you're better off sticking with the cool Vietnamese dishes.

You might try cool prewrapped rice-paper rolls, cuon , stuffed with salad greens, and bits of barbecued pork, pork and shrimp, or sweet stewed pigskin, sharp with the bite of fresh herbs. There is a peculiar though refreshing beef salad, rare slices of the meat laid carefully atop a hillock of lettuce, dressed with something not far removed from lemonade. Rounds of Vietnamese sausage, flavored not unlike a rustic French pate, are served with shreds of crunchy pickled carrot instead of cornichons. Because if there's one thing I've learned, it's that not everybody is into wrap.

* Thanh My

172 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (818) 280-0600. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Beer and wine. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$28, more with live seafood.

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