36 JFK St (Cross Street: Dunster Street)
Cambridge, MA 02138-5908
I go to school in Great Barrington in the Charmingly Rustic Berkshires. This is nice and all, but being in the boonies means that decent Asian food can be distressingly hard to find, especially Asian food that is both actually spiced and does not cost more then my tuition.
So you can imagine my pleasure when I discovered a real live Vietnamese restaurant in Cambridge, the very fish-sauce infused cuisine that I had missed so much when away from California. We had to go there for lunch. There was no question.
Le's is located in an distressingly brightly colored shopping complex called "The Garage", which almost managed to throw me off the place, if not for the warren of shiny magazine award signs that plaster the glass windows. The decor is bright and airy, although the restaurant was very crowded among 1:30 when we dropped in (although there was no wait for a table.) The crowd was loud, rowdy, and obviously quite happy, and the service reflected it's popularity - food came out quickly, but our treatment was somewhat curt. But whatever, how's the food?
We began with the steamed vermicelli and shrimp rolls (13.00) which are of the variety you roll yourself. Carefully dip the rice paper in the provided bowl of warm water, and make sure you don't screw up and allow it fold into an un-useable lump at the bottom of the dish. (See, you did it already.) The huge plate came with delicious grilled shell-on shrimp, some vinegary carrot and daikon slaw, some big hunks of cucumber and romaine, and a whole bunch of mint and other herbs for garnish. The vermicelli noodles came in the form of rather tough mats that ripped off into roll-sized hunks, an interesting presentation. In any case, roll it up and dish it in the accompanying fish sauce and you're good to go - I also like a little hoisin on the side. It's hard to go wrong with a dish as fresh and interactive as this.
We moved on to entrees, selecting a dish of sliced chicken in curry sauce with a vegetable medley, and a hot and sour soup with catfish and pineapple. The dish of curry chicken was absolutely huge, featuring a mound of white rice and an equally large quantity of sliced vegetables. Too bad it wasn't that good - the curry sauce, although possessing a decent flavor, was far too soupy, and the chicken didn't possess much flavor. The vegetables were quickly cooked and therefore quite tasty, although I needed to add some chili sauce to wake them up a little.
The soup was more successful, featuring firm chunks of white catfish, interspersed with bean sprouts, sliced tomato, pineapple, and some fried garlic as a flavorful garnish. The broth had a decent kick to it, although I found it too sweet, preferring to use it as a dipping sauce for the fish rather then actually drinking it. The fish was excellently done, keeping the familiar "mud" flavor of catfish to a respectful minimum. I added a little sambaal for an extra kick and was generally quite happy - they were also kind enough to bring out additional bowls for sharing.
Overall, Le's is a decent Vietnamese restaurant that's managed to make itself palatable to the general public. (I'm comparing it to my favorite, somewhat...interesting...Vietnamese joints back home in California.) The food is fresh and plentiful, if a bit quieted down for the Western palate, and service is quick if not friendly. Is it the Real Authentic Health-Code-Iffy Vietnamese Food Deal? Not in the slightest. But it's a good choice if you want something healthy, inexpensive, and a little bit exotic in the Cambridge area.