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Dining alone at Cafe Dalat in Arlington is hardly a lonely experience. Do it often and you’ll learn to leave your reading material at home, the better to concentrate on the coddling foreplay, the mad rush of food that comes almost as quickly as you order it, and finally, the not-so-subtle suggestion to leave, please, because space needs to be cleared for the next patron. On each of my visits to Cafe Dalat, no more than 10 minutes after exiting the Clarendon Metro stop I was receiving valuable advice from my waitress regarding the temperature of my soup or a wise choice of entree.
The blur of service at Cafe Dalat is a necessity that stems from fierce competition. The neighborhood along Wilson Boulevard where Dalat occupies a former pizza parlor is commonly referred to as “Little Saigon.” Walk a block or so in either direction and you’ll run into a half-dozen other restaurants hoping you’ll opt for their version of Vietnamese dining instead. Dalat may get pegged as the neighborhood favorite, but a quick glance at the collages of people’s-choice awards and magazine accolades conspicuously posted in restaurant windows reveals that Dalat has a rival in Queen Bee, only a block away.
The publicity for both Queen Bee and Dalat says that each offers authentic Vietnamese cuisine at a notable bargain. Believe it: Eat like a glutton at either spot and you’ll get some change back on your twenty. The difference between the two is in the details.
Cafe Dalat’s overzealous service has its benefits: The kitchen kicks out food with such speed that you can easily be in and out in half an hour. The drawback is that the servers have no feel for pace. Each time I dined at Dalat, I was overrun by orders arriving so rapidly that I had to use surrounding tables for the overflow.
But once you start to absorb Dalat’s deluge of food, you’ll be sure to subscribe to its the-quicker-the-better ethos. Girth and freshness are the qualities by which to judge spring rolls. When we compared them to the plump concoctions offered by Dalat, I concurred with one dining partner who described Queen Bee’s malnourished rolls as tasting like “bubblegum with cilantro.” The Vietnamese shrimp salad in lemon vinaigretteso good I ordered it on two occasionsfar outclassed any of the bland green papaya salads I tried at the Bee.
Since its owners see no reason to upgrade its spartan decorwicker-shaded lights, idle ceiling fans, plaster-textured wallsthe only things that distinguish Cafe Dalat from its predecessor are the scents wafting from the kitchen. It’s hardly necessary to take my head out of the soup bowl to detect a plate of ga ram gung, a simmered chicken dish reeking of ginger. A tender dish of Vietnamese steak sautéed with garlic and onions had an equally irresistible aroma and flavor. By the time I noticed a plate of ground shrimp meat that came pressed around sugar cane, Dalat’s barrage of scents had coalesced into a harmoniously aromatic whole.
The misguided rap I’d heard on Queen Bee was that it made up for shortcomings in the kitchen with “fancy” surroundings. The crowd, which trails out the door on weekend nights, certainly tends to be more dapper than the one at Dalatthough I wouldn’t bet that has much to do with the ambience. The kitschy profusion of simulated wood, furry Christmas streamers, and oversize pieces of “folk art” all suggest a decorating crew working mostly with found objects.
Comprised of one Dalat snob, one Bee advocate, and another person who was simply looking for a free meal, my group paid little mind to Queen Bee’s decor on our first visit. We all agreed the Queen Bee platter, which included fried spring rolls, a simple shredded pork salad tossed in fish sauce, shrimp tempura, and charcoal-grilled pork, could signal good things to come. But besides a spicy and sour shrimp soup that was blessed with uncanny lip-puckering powers, everything else we ordered slipped from memory once the table was cleared. Buddha’s delight is a vegetarian stir-fry that I could have cooked at home; the Saigon pancake, a crepe filled with pork, shrimp, and sprouts, was notable only for its funky texture; and neither the caramel shrimp nor the roast duck had much flavor at all.
On a repeat visit to the Bee, my group made several crucial discoveries: None of the employees smile; you need to send up a flare if you want a wine refill; the sign outside that boasts a special on soft-shell crab is a lie; and, most important, order the specialties.
When a companion gushed that the Hanoi-style grilled pork was “complicated,” he wasn’t kidding: Each bite seemed to contain a different shade of the honey, scallion, coriander, mint, scallion, and garlic marinade. The Queen Bee seafood on crispy noodles was delightfully light and, with the exception of some fake crab, packed with generous chunks of fresh ocean meat. The rice noodle on spicy and hot beef soup’s thick broth was the most flavorful of any I tried in either restaurant.
Alive in the afterglow of a fabulous meal from Queen Bee, it was easy to forget about the losers on the menu and the cheerless hospitality. But on the way out, I passed two hungry would-be patrons who were given the cold treatment and told, more with satisfaction than regret, that the kitchen was closed. Hardly the behavior of a Queen, I thought, who would threaten the reign of Cafe Dalat, King of Little Saigon.
I was told I would enjoy “awesome” soup among a herd of collegiate types and hippies. So it came as a bit of a surprise that I felt so underdressed at the Bread & Circus in Georgetown that I finally abandoned the deli line. Instead, I made my way through a store that felt like a Banana Republic and smelled like macaroni to the coffee shop for a fresh currant scone. Waiting in line, two men exchanged their feelings of awe regarding this unpretentious new shopping experience. Reminded of all the reasons I never really enjoyed seeing the Grateful Dead, I got my scone to go. CP