Complex flavors, complex charm
by M.B. Lewis
From the May, 2019 issue
Ordering the most familiar items on a menu is a quick way to take stock of a new restaurant--especially tempting when chicken bone broth pho is available on a wet and chilly Monday night. It's one of eight of the big-bowl soups at Dalat, the Vietnamese restaurant lately transplanted from Ypsilanti to the fork where Main St. and Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. meet.
Dalat's pho was warming, with the wholesome simplicity of rice noodles, white-meat chicken, and nearly clear broth. Bit by bit the flavor intensifies via squeezes of lime and slices of jalapeno set afloat from the cute little platter of accompaniments. The bright, spicy, and earthy flavors contrast in isolation, then come together in a soothing way--kind of like Dalat's orange, green, and brown decor.
Deep-fried egg rolls also satisfied, with crispy outsides, sturdy shredded vegetables and chicken inside, and a classic Vietnamese dipping sauce that is sweet, vinegary, and salty all at once. But then the smooth coast through familiar Vietnamese favorites hit a speed bump with the rice-noodle "paper"-wrapped goi cuon rolls. The shrimp was fine, but the iceberg lettuce was wilty, the bean sprouts had brown spots, and the peanut sauce was watery.
My dining companion ordered more adventurously, and that paid off. I was impressed by the big crackly slabs of honeyed crust on his chicken wings. He bypassed chicken, beef, and shrimp and chose squid for the "protein option" in his #25 stir-fry and was pleased with the result. Atop a bed of rice, a pepper-flecked curry sauce united generous portions of tender squid, onion slices, cilantro sprigs, and kaffir lime leaves (stiff as bay leaves but deliciously aromatic).
We dug into a shared dessert of fried bananas and ice cream while we waited for a to-go Vietnamese beef stew for a family member working late (he later reported that it was packed with meaty flavor but super salty). We also waited for a refill of tea, as we had waited
earlier for utensils. And a server brought a second pho bowl to our table that we hadn't ordered. Though less than a quarter of the eighty-some seats were occupied, only two servers were on duty, and one seemed inexperienced. Both of them smiled apologetically as they caught up to our needs, and that goes a long way.
Our luck was a bit better on a second visit. There are good reasons that Dalat was successful for twenty-eight years in Ypsi and is already filling more than half of its tables at a Friday lunch. Relatively low prices are part of the success equation. Also, Dalat's approach to Vietnamese cuisine goes beyond the familiar. When the chefs hit homers, they're out of the park.
"Best tofu stir-fry I've ever had," a discriminating friend said at that lunch a week after my rainy-night dinner. Silky tofu worked well with crispy cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, mushrooms, and onions in a subtle sauce. I liked my chicken skewers with fried rice, but they might have gotten a little boring if not for tasty slaw made with the same excellent dipping sauce that came with the egg rolls.
A companion who arrived late surprised us by turning over the laminated lunch menu and finding a back page of bento boxes that we hadn't seen; she liked the chicken version she chose. I had finished off my meal by then but wasn't overfull and decided, what the heck, to give Dalat a second chance on the goi cuon salad rolls. Indeed, they were much fresher than at my evening meal, and even the peanut sauce tasted better. Hmm, I thought--Sunday is the only day Dalat is closed, so perhaps Monday may not be the surest bet for freshness?
One of our lunch orders had gotten mixed up again, and all staff (even the chefs, bringing food through the swinging doors from the kitchen) were bustling to accommodate the larger crowd. I watched a well-dressed Asian woman at a nearby table repeatedly lift an immaculately manicured hand to signal a server, failing to make contact, and then going back to her pho unperturbed. She finally caught someone's attention to bring her soy sauce, and, though by then she was more than half-done, received the condiment cheerfully.
Complex food, complex charm. From how settled many diners seemed and how quickly they ordered, it seems clear that Dalat already has a lot of regulars. Next time I'll read deeper into the menu, maybe trying grated green papaya salad with pork, carrots, and cilantro topped with crushed roasted peanuts. Perhaps followed by banana pudding with tiny tapioca and coconut milk topped with crushed peanuts? I think I'd be up to it.
2216 S. Main
Appetizers, salad, and soup $4.95-$12.95; dinner $8.95-$14.95; lunch $7.95-$10.50; dessert $2.95-$7.95.
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sun.
Vegetarian selections available.
[Originally published in May, 2019.]
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