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As soon as our spiky-haired young server swept away the appetizer plates, Du and some of the kitchen crew arrived with steaming bowls and a white-hot earthenware pot. The latter was particularly exciting for Lou Jane, because clay-pot cuisine (which San Francisco chef Charles Phan calls "the bedrock of Vietnamese cooking") isn't easy to find in Kansas City. Vinh Hoa offers three variations on the type of dish that most Vietnamese cookbooks define as "peasant home cooking," made with a modest amount of poultry or fish and eaten with lots of rice.
The excited Lou Jane wanted to taste a lot of things, so besides her clay pot, we also shared a soothing bowl of pho ga, the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. I spiced up mine with a fistful of fresh cilantro and a splash of hot chili sauce. Bob nibbled bravely but halfheartedly on the sliced meatballs and fried eggroll in his bowl of bun nem bo nuong cha gio. "You know how I am about eating food I don't recognize," he said.
I'm not sure I recognized the chopped-up fish bubbling in the bottom of the clay pot when I pulled off the lid, but it sure was tasty. Even better was the rich, mahogany sauce a kind of delectable, sweet, tangy caramel and ginger sauce surrounding the seafood. They might be peasant cooking, but hot pots are the most expensive entrées on Du's menu. I'm not complaining, though, because the bony fish and satiny sauce were worth it. I soaked up every last bit with a hot baguette, fresh from the oven.
It was a wonderful meal. But, Bob said as we walked out the door, "Too bad the dining room's so ugly."
My friend Patrick had the same reaction when I brought him to Vinh Hoa for dinner several days later. We were the only customers in the place, and Patrick gave the dining room a withering appraisal. "They need to paint it a brighter color and get rid of these terrible light fixtures. Not even the best food in the world could look appetizing under this glare."
But his mood improved when Kevin, the same spiky-haired waiter I'd had before, served him a plate of cam tam bo nuong: slices of tender, charbroiled beef sided with a hefty mound of steamed "broken rice" like regular white rice, Patrick concluded after a few bites, but slightly gummier.
I dumped a little bowl of fish sauce on top of my bowl of bun, which was filled with beef, meatballs and a sliced eggroll. Once again, it was good and satisfying. But as much as I enjoyed my dinner, the dowdy décor and the fact that we were the only customers in the place took away some of the pleasure of the meal. To be honest, most Vietnamese restaurants in town are downright unattractive in my book, but David Du's place has an extra-forlorn air.
Du must have been reading my mind. When he stopped by the table, he said, "We're very busy on weekends, but the weeknights have been very slow. It's taking people longer to find out about us than I thought. But when people do come in, they like it very much."
Du said he's slowly building a loyal clientele of American and Chinese patrons. "And what about Vietnamese customers?" I asked him. "Are they coming in, too?"
"Oh, no," Du said, smiling softly. "They don't eat out. They make this food at home."