Giraffes will feel at ease walking through the front doors of La Barrique. Standing up straight, they’ll be at eye level with the tops of two white columns flanking the entryway. What they’d order once inside, however, is anyone’s guess—but the long menus, printed on tabloid paper, are varied enough to accommodate any kind of colossal appetite.
La Barrique is just one of many sky-high establishments in East San Jose’s Vietnam Town. The architects who designed the mall either miscalculated their measurements or misjudged the rate at which homo sapiens’ spines would continue to expand upwards. Sitting inside a booth, I felt like Alice after drinking a potion that had made me small.
The restaurant describes itself as a sports bar due to the presence of a phenomenally large television. Mercifully, the screen was dark while we ate our meal, thus sparing us close-up scenes of coaches with hangdog expressions, tossed pigskins and multiple tacklings. There was another flat screen TV on, floating at the top of a high wall above the rows of liquor. In someone’s living room, that second screen would stand out as ostentatious.
This ancillary form of entertainment vibrated brightly with sound and color but the displays of brute force were diminished by distance inside the cavernous space. Despite the football field length of the dining room, the waitstaff were seldom out of eyesight. One man tended a second bar closer to our table. At least three different servers, all masked and attentive, refilled the water glasses and brought food to the table.
In a way, what La Barrique serves is incidental, dwarfed by the experience of landing inside a strip mall designed for modern day pharaohs. If you arrived by a 19th century caravan, no one would blink an eye. That isn’t to say the food itself is forgettable, but the interior is so over-designed that you could be in any other American city. Sitting next to heat lamps the size of citrus trees, I felt disoriented, divorced from reality. I quickly forgot about the stop and go traffic on the three freeways I’d taken to get there. Forgetting reality, or at least putting it aside for the length of a meal, is part of the point.
Because I was very late to the table, my friend had taken the time to research what previous diners had ordered and liked in their online reviews. I arrived four minutes before the end of Happy Hour but our servers were nice enough to honor the reduced prices. We tried three starters—grilled lamb chops, sauteed scallops and sauteed shrimp. In addition to being a self-described sports bar, the cuisine is meant to include a combination of French and Vietnamese dishes.
When I’ve been to other Vietnamese restaurants embracing French influences, that colonial presence has appeared in masterful sauces (Vietnam—along with Laos and Cambodia—was part of France’s colonial empire from the late 19th century until 1954). The dishes we tried were mostly French preparations of meats, sans the sauce work. All of the appetizers were nicely cooked, seasoned simply and yearning for moisture. Though the scallops weren’t unpleasant, neither of us returned a fork to that plate. They lacked a beurre blanc, or some creamy element to draw our attention back.
For our entrees, we tried Duck Two Way ($24) and an unagi claypot ($22). The duck breast was prepared with a perfectly crunchy skin, not pink, almost medium well. A large confit leg rested in the center of the plate. It was less inviting and tougher. Again, had there been a sauce, the dish would have been more memorable, perhaps even addictive.
The claypot, though, achieved something unexpected. It summoned up not a familiar Vietnamese dish, but bibimbap—a Korean one. A steaming hot fried egg sat on top of two eel filets in a bowl full of vegetables and crisping rice. The unagi was the most comforting thing we ordered but it too would have benefitted from a splash of sauce. Any side of sauce.
It’s unlikely that diners interested in spending time with La Barrique’s televisions will care if the food is particularly French or not particularly Vietnamese. They will be hypnotised by a wide, overwhelming wall of alcohol and the series of vast, dancing pixels dedicated to entertaining them.
969 Story Rd, Ste 6090