It's fascinating how identical ingredients can be employed so differently by people across the planet. Asian cooks, in particular, take our familiar and present it in a new, delectable light.
Case in point: At Amango Restaurant, the Vietnamese pancake ($7.99) is an omelette unlike its fluffy American cousin that enfolds oozing cheese, meat, and sauteed veggies. Amango's version is a thin, pan-sized round of scrambled eggs, cooked flat. It's loaded with bean sprouts, a bit of meat and crab, and folded in half.
Cut off a small piece (say, one-inch-by-two-inch), set it on a large lettuce leaf, and embellish with fresh cilantro/basil/mint, cucumber slivers, and slightly pickled carrot slaw (a combo of julienned carrots and daikon radish that appears frequently at this diner). Next, wrap up the lettuce leaf and dip in the bowl of mildly sweet sauce. Voila! An altogether different experience. Listed as an appetizer, it's a meal in itself.
Amango moved into a former Charlie's Restaurant & Coney Island on Monroe Street, and its Vietnamese owners did a 180 on the kitchen's ingredients (the decor, not so much). With 80 items drawn mostly from Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines, the variety (and reason to return) is wide.
On the light side, try an appetizer (special spring rolls, $3.95 for four, wrapped in sticky rice paper) and one of the eight Saigon sandwiches ($3.50 to $5.25): baguette-like crunchy bread stuffed with meat/fish/egg, pickled carrot slaw, and cilantro. It's trending now in California.
Platters brim with nutritious colors, and both flavors and textures tickle the taste buds, from crunchy rice crackers to the heady fragrance of jasmine tea that's like drinking a flower (Note: flavor becomes more intense and somewhat less pleasant, the longer the tea brews).
This time of year, the most popular meals might be the pho (pronounced "fuh", $7.99 - $9.25), great big bowls of beef or chicken broth, rice noodles, and almost two dozen combinations of proteins (the meatiest of which has five types of beef). There's also rare steak, chicken, shrimp, grilled pork, and tofu and vegetables. Some soups have wontons (dumplings), BBQ duck, and crispy pork belly.
(Reminder to vegetarians: Broth is beef or chicken).
Two tools are required for soup manipulation: fork and spoon. As is typical, they're accompanied by enhancements: basil sprigs, lime, chili peppers, and hearty sprouts. To tailor the flavor even more, four sauces on the table provide sweet to hot additions.
Here's the ultimate compliment: My companion so liked the tofu/veggie soup ($7.99), she later successfully riffed on it at home.
On one visit, our server (the whole staff is Vietnamese and has turned over in the last few months) brought the wrong dish, but it was so appealing, I ordered it at a subsequent meal. A tiny Cornish game hen ($8.50) is deep-fried and served with aromatic saffron rice topped with a lightly-fried egg (runny yolk). The chicken's skin was crispy and the meat tender, but scant. As with other plates, it comes with greens and carrot slaw.
Spicy lemongrass beef ($9.95) wasn't very spicy but featured plenty of tender, marinated beef sauteed in a light sauce with about eight veggies, most fresh and still holding some crunch. Brown rice, listed on the menu wasn't available that night, so it was white rice for all.
Korea beef rib grill ($9.95) had lots of beef, scrumptiously marinaded in a dark sauce with a little kick, and the one-third of it that wasn't tough was great.
A veg plate with tofu (lightly grilled, $9.95), sprinkled with cilantro, was most satisfying.
Asian dishes include a Singapore stir-fry in a spiced curry sauce, pad thais (stir-fried stews with noodles and spices), and bird-nest (on crispy noodles).
The 17 Chinese plates ($7.99 to $10.95) touch on the most familiar, from sesame/orange/kung pao chicken to shrimp in lobster or black-bean sauce.
At the top end of the menu are five hot pot/clay pot dishes including a shrimp, squid, scallop, and fish-ball pot ($29.95), and a Vietnamese hot and sour soup pot ($25).
Most meals are modestly priced ($10 to $13), and ambiance, while more contemporary U.S. diner than Asian, is subdued with contemplative piano music.
Contact Bill of Fare at email@example.com.
Address:5228 Monroe St.
Menu: Vietnamese and Asian
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Reservations are accepted.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Average price: $$
Credit Cards: AE, DIS, MC, V
Web site: No