- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

Pacific Cafe & Grill, one of Capitol Hill's latest culinary additions, serves traditional Vietnamese fare that perfect fusion of French and Chinese influences at a very reasonable price.

The spring rolls, a typical Vietnamese dish and thankfully not deep-fried, are delicious.

They come in a meat version, grilled meatball rolls, and a semivegetarian version, garden rolls. A thin sheet of cold rice cellophane is wrapped around fresh lettuce, the ubiquitous cilantro and rice vermicelli (rice noodles that are to Vietnamese what potatoes are to Northern Europeans a must have) as well as shrimp.

In the meat version, a sweet meatball replaces the shrimp. This light, tasty, fresh and perfect-for-summer dish is served with peanut sauce.

Another (almost) mandatory appetizer, the Vietnamese beef soup with noodles (pho bo), consists of a light beef broth with sliced grilled beef and rice vermicelli. It's mild and melts in the mouth. It may be too bland for those used to spicy Thai, but as with most Vietnamese dishes, it comes with dipping sauces, chili and sweet.

The bean curd with mixed vegetables was a disappointment. The tofu was on the dry side, the sauce forgettable and the vegetables broccoli and carrots few and far between.

A better entree choice is the grilled pork with rice vermicelli. The pork is marinated in fish sauce (another Vietnamese staple), garlic and lemon grass and then grilled until its edges are crispy while the meat is still tender. Very nice. A heap of rice vermicelli accompanies this flavorful pork dish.

Vietnamese pancake, a definite leftover from the years of French colonialism, has a distinct coconut flavor, as the Vietnamese substituted coconut milk for milk when this dish was assimilated into their food culture. It too is deliciously crispy, served with shrimp, scallions and bean sprouts. The yellow tint is because of turmeric, not eggs.

Also enjoyable is the grilled shrimp on sugar cane, in which shrimp paste has been wrapped around sugar cane and then grilled. As with most other dishes, the flavoring is subtle but can be enhanced with one of several dipping sauces.

The portions while complemented by table vegetables, including lettuce, sprouts, cucumber and carrots are relatively small, and someone wanting a generous helping should be prepared to order two entrees.

For dessert, caramel custard, another dish the French brought with them, is a top pick. It's a melt-in-the mouth pleasure. Vietnamese iced coffee is rich and aromatic, made of strong coffee and condensed milk.

Other Vietnamese beverages include coconut juice and Vietnamese 33 Beer neither very interesting, and on the watery side.

Though the food is a real treat for the price, the service and ambience could use a little help. The restaurant, formerly an Italian establishment, has swapped large oil paintings for smaller Asian prints, but they are lost on the bright white walls.

The sturdy chairs and tables of the former restaurant have been replaced with flimsier ones, and the signs outside make the place look more like a fast-food stop than a full-service restaurant. (And what's up with the remaining Caffe Ristorante Italiano sign?) The food definitely deserves better presentation.

The service also needs a little improving to complete the dining experience. Waiters were sparse, maybe because the restaurant was unexpectedly busy on a Thursday night.

But our waiter was friendly if not overly informative about the dishes, which is why a more descriptive menu would be desirable. For example, the Vietnamese pancakes are listed as just that. The restaurant-goer has no way of knowing what comes with the dish or whether it's sweet, spicy or something else.

On the bright side, the space is roomy and child-friendly (as is the relatively mild food), which is a good move because the Hill is experiencing something of a baby boom.

Although the service needs a little tweaking, as does the ambience, this is still an excellent alternative to other Asian and Mexican restaurants in the same price range. The food is fresh, subtly flavorful and not very fatty. It's a sturdy culinary marriage of the East and the West.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide