Le Regal – Old food, new taste

When asked about Vietnamese food, Americans usually think of phở busily churned out in small noodle houses crowded with plastic chairs and formica tables. Naturally, since most immigrants gather in their community, the variety of traditional food can only circulate in specific areas. A small fraction of the people have settled in a predominantly American neighborhood long enough and are acquainted with the system enough to set up a business, but they often target the young customers with adventurous taste. Meanwhile, most young customers can only afford low price, hence phở and other easily-made noodle dishes make their way to the top.

Careful circumspection would show that pasta alla carbonara requires no more effort than bún thịt nướng, so is it just a matter of gaudy names, flashy advertisement, and aging familiarity that brought one into fancy menus but not the other?

By no means do I want to sound like a snob, but every now and then I get cravings for a nice dinner in a restaurant aptly labeled “restaurant”. Ladles of this melting cheese and mounts of that grated cheese just no longer light the candle. A retouch of Far Eastern eloquence was much needed to make the aesthetic night.

The price is a little steep, but here are clothed tables, warm lights, an all-English menu, little to no disturbances from foreign chattering in the kitchen and among customers. A middle-aged woman, busy like a humming bird, scampered from kitchen to tables with plates in one hand, orders and bills in the other. For a restaurant with a fair size like Le Regal, one-person play seems a little overwhelming. But it works, our food was served within the time it took for us to make a few glances at the decor and exchange some daily news.

Fried rice is an easy dish, if you throw in some meat, some egg, some legumes, some salt and soy sauce, it can be called well done. Its volatility allows the cook to break free from shackles of recipes, and the eaters to relax from judging its missing-this or extra-that. There’s no fixed list of ingredients, no fixed standard other than appealing to the mouth, hence no objective criterion to rank a plate of fried rice among others. But if we were to nitpick, creativity would pump this one fried rice on top of all other Asian concoctions I’ve had, simply because of the addition of pineapple. There were only a few wedges in that mount, but pineapple is not one to be bullied by other ingredients, its tamed acidity seeps through every grain of rice, sweeter and more thorough than a squeeze of lemon. It helps lowering the guilt of consuming chicken, shrimp, scallops, pork, fried egg and zillions of molecules of saturated fat in frying oil. The rice also made tasty leftover for the next day.

As much as the cook was generous with the protein and the starch, they also gave us enough veggies for ten. At other Vietnamese restaurants, a small plate of sprouts topped with some basil is the usual allowance. Here came a basket of mounting garden goodies. I hadn’t seen any bunch of greens this big for years, especially since we weren’t asking for phở. Not sure what to do, we made lettuce wraps with bean sprout, a couple of leaves of basil and mint, and grilled beef from the other dish we ordered. Dipped in nuoc mam, the wraps were rad.

I’ve blogged about bánh hỏi thịt nướng before, so instead of blabbing about the lacy texture, I’d just say that this was delicious. Now clearly it’s a bit disproportionate, nowhere in Vietnam would you find so much meat accompanying so little banh hoi, the rice vermicelli must be the base. But the food pyramid seems to be upside down in America, where meat is vital in keeping you thin and at all cost one must say no to starch. The cook also went bizerk with deep fried shallots and crush peanuts, but those are easily brushed off if you’re not into contaminating grilled beef with relatives of vegetables.

Together with Tomatina, Alborz, some Mexican eatery, and Top Dog, Le Régal makes Center Street a road of international cuisine, of course an addition of kangaroo ragout and kitfo would be nice.

Bill before tip: $26.23 – dinner for two and leftover lunch for one.

Le Regal
2126 Center Street (between Oxford & Shattuck)
Berkeley, CA 94704

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