When my dentist offers a recommendation, I listen. I mean, the man was dead-on about the flossing, right? So when he tossed me a heads-up about Bamboo Cafe on Bethel Road (near his office), I filed it under "Future Reconnaissance Mission."
Well, several visits later I'm able to report that Bamboo Cafe is an impressively clean restaurant serving food with impressively clean flavors. Somewhat unusually, its menu of pleasing and even nuanced dishes is split down the middle between Thai and Vietnamese choices.
Inside, the bright and charming little place heroically lives up to its name - there's bamboo all over. It comes in the form of leafy living plants splayed against the front window, burnished ladders leaning against a wall-length screen, columns forming the base of a thatched-roof hut facade and twisty green sprigs enlivening every single table.
There's also a gurgling fountain featuring a Buddha holding a blue-lit spinning ball and a pretty overall floral thing going on with real flowers and 2-D ones framed on walls and printed on fanciful crimson chair cushions. This colorful and cheery scenery is equaled in mood by the busy mini-staff of two, who seem genuinely sincere in their frequent "Is everything delicious?" inquiries.
Well, even though menu-mentioned ingredients were quite often missing from the dishes, everything pretty much was delicious. And unlike many others of its ilk, Bamboo's flavors came off as more calibrated, subtle and deliberate - as opposed to those who wildly clobber your tongue with the forceful tones associated with these cuisines (though I dig that approach too).
Of course if one diner's subtle is another diner's bland, then consider yourself forewarned.
In Thai Style
A sampling of Bamboo Cafe's Thai offerings
Yum Woonsen ($8) - A colorful and delicious warm salad with long, wispy bean-thread noodles tossed with meat (try it with ground pork) accented by alternating bites of Thai basil, peanuts, chili, fish sauce, onions and a lively lemony "dressing."
Mango Salad ($8) - Crunchy, shredded sweet mango "noodles" and carrot strips flavored with lots of sweetened citrus, cilantro and peanuts - it was topped with three pieces of fresh shrimp.
Tom Kha Gai ($8) - Top-notch, as good as any Thai soup in the city, it achieved a tight balance of tart lime, coconut milk, chili and fish sauce. It also had welcome major contributions from fresh tomato chunks and lemongrass.
Pad Thai ($12) - Very solid, it had an attractive "some assembly required" presentation with piles of sprouts and ground peanuts. The noodle dish also showed off a good blend of sweetness and citrus and came with four big nice-quality shrimp.
Pad Prik King ($10) - Lemongrass led the parade of flavors in this medium-spicy curry with a cumulative heat. The racy but not over-the-top sauce effectively perked up big and plentiful chunks of white-meat chicken.
Mango and Sticky Rice ($10) - If this dessert special is available, get it. The melt-in-your-mouth ripe fruit is imported from Bangkok and the warm, almost pudding-like, coconut-milk-drenched rice gets lively contrasts from toasted coconut and ground nuts.
Some selections from the other half of Bamboo's menu
Goi Guon Thon Thit ($4) - Three biggie-sized Vietnamese-style spring rolls had purple basil, bean sprouts and sweet shrimp peeking through their unfried, nearly transparent white wrappers. They were better executed than most, and a good deal, too.
Sup Hai San ($4) - A seafood soup that was more of a textural thing - its unusually thick, opaque white broth was almost like congee porridge. That very mild tasting semi-liquid base supported seafood (a couple of shrimp, some tiny scallops and pieces of "crabstick") that was remarkably tender.
Com Surongbi Cha ($10) - A crispy and delicious simple pork chop with flavors from an aromatic sweet soy marinade and a golden brown crust. It was served with a complementing runny egg that looked like it might've been quickly deep-fried.
Pho Tai ($8) - A huge bowl, nice rendition and excellent value for this Vietnamese noodle soup classic. The subtle but beefy broth was scattered with scallions and cilantro and had a very nice five-spice presence. On the side were all the expected add-ons - Thai basil, mint, lime, bean sprouts and hot sauce.