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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Revisiting the West Bank Café

Vietnamese specialties worth checking out

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Vietnamese food first arrived in Milwaukee in the mid-1970s at a modest café called The Rose. The main specialties were pho, the Vietnamese beef soup, and steamed fresh rolls. The Rose moved over the years, calling itself Vietnam and finally West Bank Café , a name previously used by a very different restaurant and a sly reference to the Riverwest neighborhood where it is located.

In recent years, the West Bank seems to have fallen out of favor, though I'm not sure why. The setting is as nice as ever, with tables covered by salmon linens and verdant linen napkins. The food retains its quality, from the steaming bowls of pho to blue mussels prepared two ways. The only possible reason seems to be that the kitchen can be slow. But if you can show some patience, you should allow these many delicious dishes time to appear.

One other peeve is that the steamed fresh rolls ($4.95), also called banh cuon, were sometimes unavailable during recent visits. On a trip to Vietnam a few years ago, I saw them being made by a street vendor in Hanoi. The deceptively simple preparation requires deft hands and accurate timing. In the West Bank's version, minced pork and mushrooms are served in nearly translucent rice flour crepes, and topped with cilantro, bean sprouts, a garnish of carrot and some slices of pork pate. A small bowl of nuoc cham, sweetened fish sauce and carrot found at every Vietnamese restaurant, is on the side. This remains a favorite.

It's easy to just order from the appetizers. West Bank serves great egg rolls, mussels, sesame pork, and beef with lime-a fine assortment of Vietnamese small plates. Also be sure to try the fantail shrimp ($5.95), another signature item. Spices are added to the shrimp, which are peeled with just the tail remaining and covered with an egg roll wrapper before being fried. Hold them by the tail and dip them into a suitable peanut sauce.

The entrees are divided between Vietnamese dishes and Chinese food with Vietnamese touches, along with many vegetarian options. Also be sure to check the chalkboards for the specials, including a not-so-Vietnamese pan-fried whitefish with lemon dill butter. Most entrees include soup or a salad of leaf lettuce with tomato, cucumber, red cabbage and a heap of bean sprouts. With the exception of the cabbage, the ingredients are all common in Vietnam, where fresh herbs and vegetables are prized. The salad dressings, however, show some of the few European touches at West Bank. They are still good, though, especially the basil tarragon vinaigrette.

Among the entrees, beef lemongrass ($9.95) is a fine choice. With its citrus taste, lemongrass is one of those flavors that define Vietnamese cooking. Beef slices are grilled in a slightly sweet, spiced marinade and served over shredded cabbage and lettuce. In addition to the whitefish, the specials always include catfish in a clay pot ($11.95). The sauce seems lighter than in the past, the aroma of star anise fainter, and it's not as sweet-but this remains an item well worth ordering. The sauce counters any mustiness in the catfish filets and is augmented with celery, carrot, onion and bell pepper. These dishes are offered in various degrees of spiciness, but the Vietnamese spectrum is far narrower than the Thai. Extra spicy will be more heartwarming than fiery.

A few wines and beers are served, including Vietnamese 33, a light-bodied lager. While some of the dishes have seen minor changes in preparation, there is no cause for concern: The West Bank remains a top choice for Southeast Asian dining. In fact, a restaurant of this caliber deserves more popularity. It should always be busy, the dining room filled with patient clientele not in any hurry at all.n

West Bank Café
732 E. Burleigh St.
(414) 562-5555
$$
Credit Cards: All major
Smoke-Free
Handicap Access: Yes