Vietnamese cuisine is now firmly enough ingrained in our local foodscape that it’s spawned its own sect of American aesthetes. The Vietnamese restaurants in these parts, seemingly in spite of the embarrassing circumstances that ushered their boom, remain un-Americanized in a way that feels surprisingly blue-collar. The area’s pho houses may represent the closest spiritual links we have to the scruffy, Euro-ethnic eateries that help define New York and Philly, and I know plenty of palefaces who taste home in those heady bowls of broth; calling pho “just soup” in the City Paper offices is an affront akin to questioning the virtues of corned beef in the company of Brooklyn Jews. And although all the other major ethnic cuisines boast at least one expense-account palace somewhere between K Street and Georgetown, I can’t think of a single Vietnamese joint that asks to be unreasonably compensated for its victuals.
For mainly geographic reasons, My-Le doesn’t register on a lot of radars. Silver Spring is a long way from the Vietnamese-restaurant meccas of Arlington and Falls Church, and though the restaurant has a Georgia Avenue address, it sits just far enough from the main drag that you could drive by it daily and still not know that it even existsZagat’s doesn’t. Yet My-Le is an archetype that could fit snugly into Little Saigon. Its two nondescript dining rooms posit atmospheric banality as a sign of character. Some fresh paint, not to mention a better heating system, could warm the place up considerably, but why bother with frills when the space is functional as is?
Besides, the restaurant’s vaguely tacky decor complements an order of lau, one of the house specialties, which is a kind of cousin to fondue or Japanese shabu shabu. The meal involves a free-standing burner, a pot of broth, and, if you order seafood, a platter of raw fish, greens, and uncooked noodles that will eventually provide the sustenance for your soup. As is common with cook-yourself dinners, the whole process leaves you wondering exactly who deserves to be tipped after you’ve finished eating what you haven’t spilled. If you follow the server’s recommendation to give everything a quick boil, the end result isn’t worth the risk of personal injury. I suggest filling the pot and forgetting about it for a while. The broth needs time for the fish to give it some actual flavor.
My-Le’s extensive menu includes a lot of soups that are available more fully formed, including a bracing, brothy concoction flavored with pork ribs and pickled mustard greens, a full selection of pho, and a bunch of noodle dishes that our waitress describes as soup but that end up not involving any broth whatsoever. The pho is restorative if not quite as rich and beefy as what you get in restaurants that serve little else, but the noodles, topped with charred skewers of meat or seafood and doused in a teacup’s worth of sweet fish sauce, are dead-on; it’s amazing how little fuss is required to bring a bowl of rice vermicelli to life.
Over the years (the restaurant changed its name last year but kept the same menu), I’ve eaten countless meals of simple perfection at My-Le. Its salads, topped with chicken, squid, or rare beef, are redolent of lemon, and the kitchen has a good policy about serving greens that look and taste as if they were rushed in from the garden. The grape leaves stuffed with minced beef, which are grilled to a smoky crispness, could be the only dish in town both I and my pseudo-veggie girlfriend will ever agree to fight over. Better yet is a thin pork chop, sticky with glaze and charred a reddish brown, escorted by an egg pancake (think quiche, only three times as dense) and a mound of shredded pork; you won’t be able to think of much else until you finish licking the plate.
I might die thinking My-Le a standard bearer among Vietnamese eateries, but I drop in one last time. Except for that pork bonanza, this last meal is a bomband not just because one of my friends goes home wearing her lau. The main ingredient in the chef’s specialty, heavily marinated beef tenderloin wrapped around scallions and grilled, is sour in a bad way; the steak used in another dish doesn’t have the same problem, but the notes of salt and sour in its sauce are so discordant I’m betting someone forgot to add the equalizing ingredient. The pepper-flecked chicken is tepid and tossed-off. Is someone in a hurry to catch the opening monologue on Saturday Night Live?
A few of the waiters wear the kind of insouciance that’s common among staffers at family restaurants. After enduring scores of nights in pricier restaurants at the hands of nervous wrecks trying to get it right, it’s nice to eat in the company of people who take delight in their own job security. Granted, no one at My-Le is endearing enough to make up for lapses in the kitchen, but we’re thankful on the night when someone tries: Our Vietnamese crepe is runny, coating its contents with unwanted batter. To make amends, our waiter insists on sending us home with a little something on the house.
My-Le Family Restaurant, 8077 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, (301) 588-8385.
Washington is brimming with people who could stand to get out of town more, like the reader who goes to the Chacha Seafood Bistro for the sole purpose of basking in its fabulousness. “The food’s overpriced,” she says, “but it’s the place to be seen.” She’s right about the food. The kitchen at this offshoot of Portofino has a habit of punishing fresh seafood with overcooking, and the Alfredo dill sauce surrounding the ravioli with shrimp and salmon mousse is pure sludge. The dining room is pleasant enough, but if it’s beauty you’re after…let’s just say that the dowdy vibe matches the food.
Chacha Seafood Bistro, 509 S. 23rd St., Arlington, (703) 979-7676.
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