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Working Classics

Ngoc Lan dishes out true proletarian fare

By Andrew X. Pham

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, San Jose's Little Saigon was composed of a congregation of three Vietnamese-American businesses--a smelly Asian grocery, a hole-in-the-wall diner and a dentist's office--clustering on one block within view of Eastridge Mall. Now, it has bloomed into a bustling microcosm, encompassing more than a square mile with Tully Road as the epicenter. Some say you could live here without ever speaking a word of English. Others say you could dine out here regularly for less than $5 a meal without ever getting bored.

Both claims ring true to an extent, although the latter is, by far, the easier stretch. Delis, mom-and-pop diners, cafes and noodle houses make this a simple undertaking. Almost every eatery, including the larger restaurants, offers entrees under $5. One of these bargain diners which has endured over the years is Ngoc Lan, a narrow-beamed establishment that serves up proletarian meals with a smile.

Com dia means rice plate in Vietnamese--something filling but tasty and inexpensive. Some restaurants only serve com dia for lunch, but true binh dan (proletarian) diners such as Ngoc Lan serve them anytime, which is good, because most of Ngoc Lan's a la carte items aren't exactly high culinary achievements. The catfish soup (No. 69, $6.95), for instance, is an oily, unbalanced mess. The house special hot chicken wings (No. 89, $5.50), on the other hand, could have been finger-licking good had they been freshly made. Definitely not worth $6.95, the battered and fried soft shell crabs (No. 11) were spongy and proved to be more batter than crab.

Enough griping. The real bargains are bun bo Hue ($4.50) and the various dry noodle dishes and rice plates (Nos. 51 through 68, $4.25 to $5.50). The former is made with a beef and pork stock accented with a pungent sweet-and-salty shrimp paste, served with a large side of herbs, chopped lettuce and bean sprouts. This kitchen makes a rather mild version accessible to most first-timers. For those less inclined to brave this broth, dry rice noodle dishes such as grilled pork meatballs with rice-noodles (No. 41, $4.95) relay much lighter and more refreshing flavors. Most noodle dishes without soup are served with large sides of fresh lettuce, cilantro, pickled carrots and fish sauce for dipping.

A popular rice dish, com suon nuong (No. 61, $4.95), is a grilled pork chop over rice with a side of stir-fried vegetables. One engaging beef dish that displays the way Vietnamese cooking has adapted the Western penchant for beef is com bo luc lac (No. 67, $6.50). Marinated cubes of beef are sautéed with onion and cracked pepper, sometimes with clarified butter, and served over rice with a vinegary soy sauce and a side of salad.

Ngoc Lan is an operation that has been around the block several times. Its crusty table condiment sets, stained ceiling tiles and worn linoleum do not suggest a first-date destination, but the rock-bottom prices and fairly good flavors give many reasons for not cooking at home.

Ngoc Lan is located at 1992 Tully Road, San Jose (408/238-0911).

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From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of Metro.

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