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Huong Giang: Choose your own adventure 

Offering fun with fire at the table

"We'll have the fish hot pot," I say to our waiter at Huong Giang, the new Vietnamese restaurant in the just-built strip mall at 4300 Buford Highway.

"I don't think you should get that," he responds. His expression is pained, hesitant and unhappy.

"Why not?"

"It's just not something people like."

"Do you recommend any of the hot pots?" I ask.

"The Thai hot pot."

OK, fine. On an earlier visit, I had not given up so easily. The same waiter, with the same expression, had told me I was ordering too much food, and did I know what I was getting into when I ordered the filet mignon cooked in vinegar? Of course I didn't, but that was part of the fun. I persisted. He acquiesced, miserably. The boiling vinegar was the most fun I'd had in weeks. More on that later.

I come across this attitude quite frequently when I order food in ethnic restaurants, when I ask for my food spicy and occasionally as soon as I walk in the door. It has me wondering -- is there a gang of American diners who troll Buford Highway ordering fatty brisket, spicy fish stew and salty lemonade, then sending things back because they are too weird? I'm sure every restaurant with a menu that goes beyond bland has horror stories to tell about diners whose adventurous spirits were bigger than their exploratory bite. Our waiter at Huong Giang seemed positively haunted by ghosts of disgruntled diners past. I appreciated the concern, really, but would I order something as bizarre-sounding as sour pig ears if I were looking for a safe, bland lunch?

No, I would not. And the reason for the waiter's pained expression is that there's not much that is safe and bland to be had at Huong Giang, and therefore not much to please the unadventurous. But on all my visits, I encountered a pleasant mix of Asian and American diners, all chowing down happily. There is much here to please the brave among us, and as long as you're willing to do a little of your own cooking, something for the less daring as well.

Huong Giang aims to be more upscale than the pho houses that proliferate this stretch of Buford Highway. The main design elements are the light fixtures -- chandeliers, really -- which have a style that might be described as Asian baroque. Shiny black tables and chairs also lend a slight air of refinement.

The restaurant specializes in the food of Hue, the central Vietnamese city that served as the capital from 1804 to 1945. As such, it is known for its "imperial cuisine," the food that was served at the royal table, as well as distinctive regional dishes more suited for the common household. The city's most famous dish, bún bò hue, is a spicy, rich beef-and-noodle soup that resembles pho and is served here with pig's feet. You can imagine my friend the waiter's delight when I ordered that one. I am a pho addict and will happily tolerate a pig's foot for the chance to dive into a musky, meaty broth. Another Hue specialty is báhn, rice-flour paste wrapped in banana leaves. Some of you may recognize this as the "tamales" found on the menu at Nam. Mixed with ground shrimp and pork and dipped in a mild fish sauce, the thin and slightly gummy rice cake takes on a comforting and exotic flavor.

The jumbo shrimp sauteed in tamarind juice is available as an appetizer or entree and is stickily delicious. The restaurant also serves bún, a bowl full of noodles with meat and veggies that you mix all together to create a fresh, minty, meaty salad dressed in fish sauce. The grilled-pork paste version, which is actually savory little pork meatballs, is a new favorite.

But the most fun to be had at Huong Giang is with the portable gas burners they set on your table for a number of cook-it-yourself dishes. The aforementioned filet mignon cooked in vinegar is far more appetizing than it sounds, and was the favorite at our table. A plate of raw, thinly sliced beef arrived along with a pot of vinegar imbued with vegetables and spices. The pot was set atop the open flame of the gas burner, and we were left to boil the beef ourselves, dropping it in the pot and then wrapping it up in rice paper with lettuce, vermicelli, mint and green plantain slices. The vinegar gives the tender beef a kick of flavor, offset by a funky dipping sauce made of fish paste and pineapple. Our waiter steered me clear of the sauce, but by now I had taken his discouragement as a challenge, and the sauce was delicious.

The bò né is another dish requiring fire, this time a hot, sizzling platter to cook the beef on. The char that's possible is nice, but I preferred the flavor the vinegar imparted. I also managed to set the table on fire. The sizzling platter comes with butter and oil to cook with, and when our beef started to smoke, one of the waiters advised adding oil. My grumpy waiter said, "Just a little," while the other one told me to pour it all in. I poured in about half, and poof, up went the whole thing in a hell-like inferno. Our waiter put out the fire and got us a new platter. It turns out his assessment of my incompetence wasn't so far off after all.

The Thai hot pot was quite delicious, the bubbling broth a sour, spicy elixir full of ginger. It came with a plate of raw shrimp, squid, clams and scallops as well as hearty greens and cabbage to be cooked in the broth -- "A little at a time!" the waiter commanded. It was a very difficult prospect to cook the shrimp long enough and yet keep the clams and squid from becoming inedibly tough. It can be done, but it requires a Jedi cook's sensibility for timing.

As if to pay me back, when I asked for a ladle for the hot pot the waiter brought one and dropped it into the boiling pot so that it was untouchably hot within seconds. I guess that's what a girl gets for setting the table on fire. But be persistent -- there's only so much discouragement they can give you before they back up and let you gnaw on your pig's foot in peace. Much of what Huong Giang has to offer is worth putting up a fight for.

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