Though I receive a lot of recommendations from readers of restaurants to review for this column (keep those coming, by the way!), certain names pop up over and over, and one of these is La Cai Noodle House.
I've heard from a friend and her husband, a couple of church acquaintances, people I know only via e-mail and, most persistently, my husband and the group of co-workers with whom he usually has lunch on Fridays lunches, if I'm to believe the stories, that can get a teeny bit raucous.
Even, he tells me, at La Cai Noodle House, though this seems like practically the last place you could get boisterous. It's so calming, despite the crowds that visit for lunch: dark jade and earth tones on the walls, straight black beams marching sedately down one side of the dining space, tall bamboo plants echoing the young trees growing just beyond the west wall of windows, screening the busy State Street traffic outside.
Besides, who could get rowdy when there's food this good to wolf down or savor, as the mood takes you? We visited La Cai for a recent weekday lunch and, once seated in a snug booth set into the eastern wall, got right down to the business of enjoying this restaurant's excellent Vietnamese and Chinese food.
We started with the wonderful egg rolls. They arrived cut into oblong sections that showed off the glass noodles, fine-ground meat and veggies inside. We dipped them into the accompanying blush-clear sweet and sour fish sauce and thoroughly enjoyed their crisp wrappers and dark, rich filling.
My husband had one of the lunch specials, which run almost exclusively to Chinese food, though all the food has a certain elegance and delicacy with sauces that are characteristically Vietnamese. His meal, the chicken chow mein, was a simple presentation of lean, white chicken with slant-cut celery in a light and savory sauce, served over thick, crunchy noodles. Done badly, this dish is gummy and bland. Done well, as at La Cai, the flavors shine.
I wanted Vietnamese, so I ordered the server-recommended vermicelli with stir-fried beef and onion. Though it arrived with fresh lettuce, bean sprouts and julienned carrots to the side of the steaming swirl of beef, onion and tender white noodles, it's all meant to be mixed together, so that cool and hot, cooked and fresh flavors combine. This dish was filling, warm and delicious, with the bean sprouts and lettuce giving it a grassy snap.
We all shared a plateful of La Cai's excellent ham fried rice. Ham fried rice is a particular favorite of mine. I can eat it even when it's indifferently prepared. But La Cai's version was delightful: thinly glossed with oil, smoky and hot and fresh off the grill, with loads of sweet ham. Later in the day, I took out my leftovers and ate the rest of it cold, unwilling to wait to warm it up.
My 5-year-old daughter tried the house noodle soup, a beautifully seasoned clear broth full of vegetables, pork, chicken, shrimp and loads of soft, flat noodles. She ate all she could, but we still had a big container to take home for leftovers.Appetizers $2.95-$5.95, entrees $5.95-$14.95, specialty fondue $26.95, lunch specials (one entree served with ham fried rice) $5.75-$7.50.
Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org