Wrap and roll 

Beefing it up at Vietnam House with spicy, authentic pleasures

Variations on a theme are fashionable these days -- chocolate dessert extravaganzas, pasta sampler plates, three-cheese intermezzos and apricot assortments, just to name a few. I usually bite. Combos such as these are often as educational as they are delicious.

Somehow, though, I'd missed the Vietnamese classic, Beef Seven Ways. It is offered at the new Vietnam House on Buford Highway for a minimum of two people at dinner ($16.95 per person). Accompanied by a friend on a recent night, I bit again, and happily so.

Beef Seven Ways (Bo Bay Mon) is a succession of dishes, each intended to enhance the next. Beginning with beef fondue or salad and ending with soup -- soup being a traditional last course at many Asian meals -- each preparation highlights the different textures, techniques and flavors of and by which clever chefs embellish the prized, high-priced protein.

At Vietnam House, the first course is beef salad (I'm going to skip the elaborate titles of each dish here), thin-sliced lean meat, sesame seeds, carrots, onions, crushed peanuts and peppers served with shrimp crackers and a tart-sweet dressing. The salad is crunchy, somewhat acerbic and definitely refreshing. Like most of the dishes that follow, it is eaten with chopsticks. (Forks are available for the chopstick-impaired, however.)

Next, a butane stove is brought to the table. A container of broth and onions is heated to the simmer and a platter of paper-thin raw beef provided. Rice paper wrappers (think of them as Vietnamese tortillas) and a bowl of warm water are set out, as are platters of lettuce, basil, cilantro, mint, marinated carrot, cucumber, mung bean sprouts, cooked rice noodles and a bowl of mild dipping sauce. Our waitress demonstrated the technique -- which remains in play for several succeeding courses.

Dampen a sheet of rice paper in the warm water to soften it, transfer the now malleable wrapper to a plate and place a small amount of garnishes on one side of the sheet. Meanwhile drop one or two slices of meat into the simmering broth, swish it around with chopsticks and cook briefly until red (rare), pink (medium) or pink-gray (well done). Transfer the fondue beef to the garnishes, roll up the wrapper, dip one end into the sauce and bite the wet end. Depending upon garnishes and cooking times, infinite variations on temperature, texture and taste are possible.

So are the gradations of dipping sauce. Big Caucasian fellas such as myself are routinely served a mild, clear, Americanized version of mam nem or nuoc cham, the anchovy-flavored dressing that functions as Vietnam's table salt or soy sauce. Laced with julienne carrots, herbs and chili peppers, Vietnam House's milquetoast dip does the job -- but with a little too much finesse. When I asked the waitress about it, she explained that a more pungent dip is set out for Asian customers. "But you wouldn't like it," she warned.

"Try me," I replied.

"Me, too," said my buddy, a man somewhat less familiar with Asian cooking.

The old-country version is thick, brown and definitely -- but not aggressively -- fishy. For me, it works wonders with the beef wraps. My buddy, on the other hand, gave it a fair try but ended up voting for the milder dip. Adventurous foodies may want to try both.

For the next course, a sauté pan and butter are substituted for the stock pan, and a plate of sliced beef moistened with marinade -- the flavors remind me of a Thai curry dip -- is set down. The beef is briefly fried in bubbling butter, then wrapped and rolled as before.

Courses four and five are variations upon a variation -- beef sausages topped with crushed peanuts, with one set of rolls wrapped in "Hawaiian" leaves. They can be garnished and wrapped or consumed as is. Although both are tasty and relatively lean, we liked the leafless version better.

Course six was our least favorite, a somewhat fatty beef-and-rice-noodle meatball. But the finale made up for this leaden disappointment: clear, deeply flavored beef broth into which elbow macaroni and chopped cilantro were stirred. The soup is light and refreshing. With the bill came a sectioned orange, just the thing for cutting any remaining fat in one's mouth.

Vietnam House serves many familiar dishes as well, including beef-and-rice-noodle soup, rice combination dishes and appetizer rolls. For lunch one day, we started with cha gio, Vietnamese egg rolls -- crisp, greaseless fried batons that are usually best when wrapped in lettuce and herb leaves and dipped as described above ($3.95). Alas, we were given only a few wisps of greenery for four rolls. House soup No. 1, however, Hu Tieu Vietnam House Dac Biet, was about as good as it gets. The entree soup consists of beef broth, sliced beef, quail egg, shrimp, chicken, green herbs and rice noodles. Viet veterans flavor such soups to taste with red-pepper sauce, lemon juice, sprouts, herbs and fish sauce ($5.95). The portion can easily be split.

Though no doubt an authentic Eurasian-fusion dish, French-style beef-fried rice, recommended by the waitress, struck me as less pleasing than more traditional Asian recipes. In this entree plate, beef and onions are combined with a gamy sauce and paired with somewhat greasy rice scrambled with eggs and onions ($7.95). I didn't finish it, nor did I take the leavings home.

Watch both sides of the street when exiting the parking lot. The strip mall is located at the crown of a hill adjacent to a busy intersection near Peachtree DeKalb Airport. Traffic never stops.

elliot.mackle@creativeloafing.com

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