Dong Nai Vietnamese and Chinese Cuisine
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., March 28, 2008
Dong Nai Vietnamese and Chinese Cuisine4211 S. Lamar, 444-1593
Monday-Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday, noon-9:30pm
Last week I stopped in at a little Vietnamese restaurant, an unimposing strip-mall joint near the Target on Ben White. I ordered the tofu vermicelli bowl ($5.75), and it was wonderful, perfect, just the way I like it: a cold bed of bean sprouts and lettuce, topped with warm rice vermicelli and hot crispy tofu, caramelized onions, fresh cilantro, carrots, ground peanuts, and a piquant sauce. As I assured my waiter (upon his inquiry) that everything was wonderful, I said, "It's prepared very much like the way they used to make it at Saigon Kitchen." My waiter, Thin Do, began smiling happily and excitedly explained to me that he and the owner/chef were both old-time Saigon Kitchen folks. They had both worked there in the late Nineties, when the South location was at its zenith.
"We have many of the same dishes here," Thin Do explained. Instantly I asked, "Do you have Beef Chunk With Lettuce and Tomato?" "Yes, yes," he said, and pointed to the Vietnamese Steak Cubes. "The name is different, but it is the same dish," he assured me. "What about Tofu With Lemongrass and Chile?" Yes, yes, he nodded.
Can it be? Can I truly have found where all my favorite Vietnamese dishes have been hiding? As it turns out, the answer is an emphatic yes.
Dong Nai was opened three years ago by Chau Ro, a charming and indefatigable woman who apprenticed at Saigon Kitchen under owner/chef Kim Nguyen, whose culinary skill is now legendary, at least in South Austin, where she is sorely missed. "Kim taught me everything I know," Chau Ro avers. "The recipes I use are the ones she taught me."
As promised, the Lemongrass Tofu ($6.95) is just as lovely as I remember: crispy pan-fried tofu draped with sautéed green-onion tops in a rich sauce lightened by chiles and vibrant lemongrass. The Medium-Rare Beef With Salad ($9.95), a new dish to me, was a delight. Thinly shaved, tender beef, piled on a chilled bed of cilantro, bell peppers, lemon, cucumbers, basil, lettuce, mint, and onions, with a light dressing: an unforgettable blend of flavors.
The Squid With Black Peppercorn ($9.95), recommended by our waitress, was a hit all around the table. The tender slices of calamari, very lightly breaded and pan-fried, were extremely flavorful, with a simple onion-and-celery-based sauce that complemented the fresh squid without obscuring its delicate nuances.
The Curry Tofu With Vegetables ($6.95) was the only disappointment; the sauce was overpoweringly sweet, tasted far more strongly of coconut than curry, and lacked heat. When I asked Chau Ro about it, she said that she had so many complaints about the fieriness of the curry that she had made it much more bland. Not an improvement in my book. You can, however, specify that you want your curry hot, and Chau Ro will stir you up a more authentic version.
The meal ended with delicious fried bananas ($2.95), chunks of ripe banana fried in a tempuralike batter, drizzled with a light syrup and white sesame seeds, the sesame and banana flavors blending charmingly. Also (but of course!) iced Vietnamese coffee, made with very strong French chicory-laced espresso, sweetened condensed milk, and lots of crushed ice: the perfect coffee drink for our Texas summers.
Though Dong Nai seems nondescript on the outside, don't let appearances fool you; the Vietnamese delicacies Chau Ro creates within will dazzle you.