By Kelley Carlson
There’s no place like home, but Le Bambou is a close second for the Do family. Owned by Andrew Do and his wife, Cuc Nguyen (who also serves as chef) the restaurant has remained virtually unchanged since it opened its Del Mar location more than 20 years ago.
In fact, according to daughter Annie Do, who is manager, Le Bambou is almost exactly like their house.
Members of the Do family, along with about a half-dozen brightly colored fish in an aquarium, greet customers at the entrance. The simple, yet elegant, dining room is accented with bamboo and surrounded by pinkish-beige walls. White cloth napkins are fanned onto plates; next to the menus on the table are candles and fresh flowers picked from the family’s garden daily.
“She’s (my mom) here all day; she wants to feel like she’s at home,” Annie said.
Nguyen, who has never taken a cooking class, is the only chef at Le Bambou and has one assistant. She prepares every dish from scratch, which is why the restaurant is limited to about 15 tables. Her experience stems from cooking for her husband and six children over the years.
The Do family has been a part of San Diego County’s culinary scene since 1977, when they opened Vietnam Restaurant in City Heights. According to Annie, it was the first Vietnam restaurant in the county.
While the original establishment featured more traditional Vietnamese cooking, Le Bambou (which replaced Vietnam Restaurant) incorporates more of a Vietnamese-French fusion. The inspiration came from Nguyen’s older sister, who had an eatery in France.
Ninety dishes are on the menu, ranging from appetizers and soups, to vegetarian, seafood, beef and chicken entrees. The portions are large enough for family-style dining, allowing for people to sample each dish.
Start off the meal with a Vegetable Ambrosia, consisting of sauteed vegetables, tofu, rice noodles, cilantro, mint and peanut sauce. Or order rice paper and other extras, and assemble your own spring rolls. Soups include Suong, which is specially prepared ground shrimp with rice noodles in a chicken broth; and Traditional Style Fish Soup, a tamarind-flavored concoction with sole or salmon, tomatoes, bean sprouts, pineapple and celery.
Among the restaurant’s specialties are the richly flavorful Cornish Game Hen and the Clay Pot Rice, with mushrooms, shredded chicken, barbecue pork, onion and spices.
Annie noted that Le Bambou’s food does not contain MSG, which is typically found in Asian dishes. Also, adjustments to spice levels and other accommodations can easily be made. “The majority of stuff is made to order,” Annie said.
The daytime is ideal for a casual meal with business associates or friends, with ambient light filtering in through the front door. In the evening, the lights are dimmed and candles are lit. The experience is enhanced with the soft sounds of piano music.
There’s a constant stream of customers year-round, and nighttime tends to be the busiest, Do said. She explained that the restaurant is closed on Mondays so the family can do inventory and spend time together.