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My-Le: On track for great Vietnamese food

by Robbie Swinnerton

As soon as the rains lift and the temperatures rise, our thoughts turn to Vietnam. It’s the food we crave: No other cuisine seems quite as appetizing once the sweltering summer sets in.

Not that we want to actually head off to Southeast Asia. In terms of climate, that would be like fleeing from frying pan to fire. But we’re always ready to travel the extra mile in search of good Vietnamese cooking. And that’s just as well, since some of the best in Tokyo is at My-Le, all the way down in Kamata on the southernmost city limits.

First things first: My-Le (pronounced “mee lay”) is far from fancy. It occupies a humble second-floor room in a shabby building on a side street lined with love hotels and cheap taverns, within earshot of the busy JR train lines. You may feel you’ve strayed to the wrong side of the tracks. But as soon as you see the care that has gone into the illustrated multipage menu, you realize you are definitely in the right place.

Nor is My-Le new. The restaurant has been here for two decades now, although for more than half that time it traded under the bald, unimaginative name “Vietnam.” But when current owner Akinori Masauji took over along with his Vietnamese wife, he did more than rename it for his mother-in-law: He ushered in a far more contemporary feel.

He had the walls decorated with colorful hand-painted murals and fabrics. Out went the sad, generic ethnic look and in came cheerful tablecloths and furnishings. Don’t expect to hear Southeast Asian pop music on Masauji’s sound system: His speakers deliver indie rock and grunge, at times rather too loud for the harsh acoustics of the room to absorb.

He’s also brought in a hip young crew to staff the place, all of them locally born but of Vietnamese extraction. Most crucially, though, he has three women chefs from Vietnam working in the kitchen. Not only are they really good, the range of dishes they offer puts to shame many restaurants twice the size of My-Le and in far more salubrious settings.

Where to start? Well, you can’t go wrong with the fresh spring rolls. There are three kinds to choose from: goi cuon, of course, with the halves of pink shrimp visible inside the translucent rice paper; and also bi cuon (the same, but made with meat) and ca cuon (with fish), which you rarely, if ever, find elsewhere in Tokyo.

Whichever you choose, they’re served promptly, and go perfectly with that first beer. Here again My-Le distinguishes itself by offering Fuda, a lager brewed in Hue and served in bottles, which is well worth the ¥50 premium over the far more ubiquitous and bland Saigon-brewed 333 (it’s pronounced “ba ba ba”) in cans.

Our favorite starter, though, takes longer to prepare. Banh beo are mini hot cakes of white rice dough topped with bits of dried shrimp, chopped scallions, chili and shreds of daikon and carrot, all dressed with a savory sauce of lightly sweetened rice vinegar seasoned with nuoc mam fish sauce. They’re colorful, light and easy to eat, just a couple of bites each, and the subtle blend of flavors in the sauce gently spurs your appetite into action.

The banh xeo are also excellent, the crisp yellow pancakes stuffed with pork and plenty of bean sprouts. But we may never order them again, now we’ve discovered the banh khot: Think of these as miniature versions of banh xeo, small cups made of the same yellow dough, but filled with shrimp in a rich coconut cream.

As with the larger pancakes, they are served with a heaping platter of greens: lettuce, green shiso (perilla) leaf, mint and holy basil, plus slices of cucumber. The idea is to wrap each banh khot inside a lettuce leaf with the other herbs, then moisten them in the salty-sweet dip.

This is what makes Vietnamese cuisine so appetizing, especially when your taste buds have shriveled in the heat. The fresh ingredients, aromatic herbs, colorful garnishes and condiments are all calibrated to stimulate your palate without weighing down your stomach.

Order the whole deep-fried madai (snapper), and it comes with dry rice paper along with the standard mound of foliage. You moisten each piece of rice paper with a fine spray of water before loading it up with fish and greens. Besides tasting exceptionally good, this is fun, hands-on dining.

Where to go next depends on how hungry you are. There are some great stir-fries — the chicken with lemongrass looks plain but tastes amazing; and ditto the spicy Dalat-style beef. And our top tip among the noodle dishes is not the pho (rice noodles) but the Saigon hu tieu, tapioca noodles topped with chicken, seafood, coriander leaf and lots of greens.

On our most recent visit, we remembered to save space for dessert. We lapped up the che chuoi, a warm “soup” of coconut milk with banana, chopped peanuts, small spheres of tapioca and mysterious zigzag strands of green jelly. Even better was the chuoi chien, batter-fried small bananas that were dipped in syrup and then drizzled with thick, condensed milk, the same kind you get in the bottom of your Vietnamese drip coffee. Certainly they’re sweet, but they deliver just the right hit of energy we needed to make it back to the train station.

Two caveats about My-Le and two bonus points: On weekends, if you reserve for the first sitting (from 5 p.m.), a time limit of two hours is imposed; and although the rest room is spotless, the toilet is of the traditional squat type. On the other hand, the whole restaurant is nonsmoking; and the banh mi sandwiches (chicken or pork pate) make an outstanding takeout snack, in case you get hungry on the way home.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at foodfile.typepad.com/blog.