Saigon (or, officially, Ho Chi Minh City) is, of course, a long way away about 20 hours as the 747 flies. But the Duong family, who's run Cây Da Vietnamese Cuisine restaurant in the more accessible city of Boca Raton for the past four years, provides an alternative destination for us armchair travelers. A trip to Cây Da is in fact just a leisurely drive north or south depending upon your point of origin along Federal Highway. You'll end up seated, for lunch or dinner, at a plain table in one of two small, plain rooms (the upstairs section is closed on slow nights) faced with decisions no more pressing than whether to order the beef phò or the hot and sour shrimp soup, equipped with the knowledge that even if you order practically everything, you'll still come away with enough change to pay for a movie ticket down at the Regal or at least a DVD from Blockbuster across the street.
There's nothing on the menu as exotic as the black rice roll infused with jasmine tea that I had at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York last year, but every dish I've tried at Cây Da has been fresh, unfussy, and completely delicious. Three soups, for example, asserted individual and distinct personalities, some simple, others complex. A hot-and-sour shrimp soup ($3.95) gave up its pleasures discretely. There was the deep and loamy richness of mushrooms, a bright burst of chopped tomatoes and sulfurous pinprick of scallion, the slightly musky bean sprouts and the fresh brine of shrimp. How any of these landed on your spoon determined the personality of each bite, but a delightfully sour seafood broth laced with lemongrass and fish sauce held it all together. Cabbage soup ($3.95) was much simpler but still yummy the palest, most delicate broth held a single cabbage leaf wrapped around a package of spiced chopped pork contrasting the ethereal with the meaty. And chicken noodle soup ($3.75) had the clearest chicken flavor I've tasted in any soup in a long time, as if the essence of fresh fowl had been hand-squeezed into the bowl.
I can also recommend the grilled beef wrapped in piper lá lôt ($6.95), identified as grape leaves on the menu but really betel leaves. You get six little rolls filled with minced beef flavored with lemongrass and garlic, the toasty grilled meat asserting itself through the spices. There's nice contrast in the pickled carrot and radish that come with them, a sour and crunchy counterpoint to the smoky darkness of the rolls, the leaves reminiscent of briny tobacco, which is a lot tastier than it might sound.
We sampled two rolls pan-fried crispy spring rolls ($4.50) filled with spiced minced pork, finely chopped bean sprouts, and cabbage, served with a vinegary-sweet fish sauce. Their lightly oily, textural crunch dissolves on the palate. Cold rolls wrapped in slightly clammy rice paper are filled with shrimp, cilantro, and bean sprouts for a different textural experience and a mouth-feel (that chilly, sticky rice paper) unique to Vietnamese cuisine.
Americans don't generally like to be served fish whole those blank, staring eyes, that lifeless tail so Cây Da is taking a bit of a risk with its fried fish of the day. There are advantages to cooking and serving a fish in its entirety, because a fish cooked with head, tail, skin, and bones intact will release all its concentrated flavors when cut open a snapper, say, in the full expression of its snapperness. The whole small red snapper (market price was $20.95 the night we dined) had been fried so its skin was crisp and densely fragrant, napped in a sweet ginger fish sauce and scattered with salty-sour tomatoes and scallions. Cut carrots, snow peas, and broccoli ringed the plate. The intensity of the fish's skin gave way, when you cut it open in clouds of steam, to the lightest and airiest white flesh beneath. It was beautiful.
We also sampled crispy lemongrass duck ($17.95): sliced, deeply pink breast meat ringed with crunchy, fatty skin in a peppery sauce the color of molasses and with hints of five spice powder, rich and filling. A grilled curry shrimp dish ($16.95) was precisely the opposite, and distinct from Thai and Indian versions like eating spice and shellfish-infused air. The shrimp, as with every seafood dish we sampled, was pristinely fresh, with the moist density of texture that makes eating this animal such a pleasure. The curry was no more than a light broth in which floated a few equally fresh vegetables. It was served with plain white rice. And it was a dish practically glowing with good health and well-being.
The sizzling crepe ($14.95), a house specialty, is a thin, crusty rice-flour pancake rolled over a moist interior filled with shrimp, mushrooms, and bean sprouts (you can also order it with chicken or pork). It's high comfort food the crepe is reminiscent of breakfast pancakes and omelets and buttered toast, only a hundred times lighter and silkier, and you just want to keep eating and eating it, such a perfect foil for the shapes and flavors and textures inside.
As if all this weren't nice enough, there are the proprietors. Mother and daughter-in-law are in the kitchen, at least one son takes care of the tables, and he's a good guy, willing to stop and chat almost indefinitely about the ingredients in any dish and the process of making it; about his family's successes (how they learned their trade in New York; how they came to open this, their first restaurant; how one brother is studying to become an engineer).
We had a sweet chocolate cake made with ground almonds ($4.50) for dessert, and it was almost as good, if a little less nuanced, as a similar Caprese cake we'd had the week before at Paradiso for twice the price.