It was a drizzly, dreary day when we first visited Green Bamboo, a Vietnamese restaurant on Germantown Parkway. It was one of the first of the cool days we've recently experienced, and I had the sniffles. It was a good day for soup.
A good soup I had, too. I ordered the pho bo vien from a menu of about a dozen soup choices, and it was largely luck that I chose that one. The descriptions don't waste words, yet somehow "beef flavor with meatballs" stood out from the list. An enormous bowl, steam wafting behind it, was delivered to my table with a plate of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, sliced peppers and, surprisingly, a wedge of lemon instead of lime.
Soup that hot might as well be enjoyed in stages, as it can't be eaten right away. I inhaled the steam, getting little more than the smell of onion and vague whiffs of spice. Because of the lack of intense aroma, I was astonished when I finally tasted the soup. It was a thin, barely tinted broth, yet bursting with a robust flavor more at home in a hearty beef stew.
It was delicious alone, but even better with the addition of the herb medley, a healthy squeeze of lemon and a few bean sprouts for crunch. Thin slices of seared beef floated in the golden broth with the meatballs, which were cut, not served whole. A massive tangle of noodles, far more than most people could eat, sat at the bottom of the bowl. It was thoroughly satisfying.
Green Bamboo is a cozy place, stuck at the end of a small strip mall, but warm and welcoming, with dark wood floors, a simple bar at the back (with a television tuned to the History Channel), and clusters of bamboo arranged here and there. It's simple but comfortable.
Navigating a menu of unfamiliar dishes can be challenging to diners, and is one of the reasons people stick to familiar fare at familiar places. At Green Bamboo, most of the selections have a photograph to go along with the brief description. This is convenient, though the descriptions fail to mention when a dish is served cold.
I should have known bun thap cam is cold, but frankly, the photo looks like a plate of food instead of the big bowl of noodles topped by a variety of savory items. And the description makes it sound like a pork dish. While I was delighted to see the big vermicelli bowl, my dining companion was expecting a hot meal and was disappointed.
The blueprint is a thick bed of cold rice vermicelli, topped with shrimp, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs, and thin slices of grilled pork and a sliced egg roll, the latter two items served warm; you pour a slightly sweet and spicy fish sauce over it all. The pork was heavily seasoned with lemongrass, a floral flavor that is distinct enough to inspire opinions. If you don't like it, Vietnamese food might not be for you (though you can find dishes without it, such as the pho bo vien).
The simply named "curry" under the house specialties was an excellent selection. Good cooks know that heating spices intensifies the flavor, and in the curry at Green Bamboo, there's a slightly toasted note to the many layers of the curry. Lemongrass is there but it's not the predominant flavor; you can taste ginger, coriander, garlic, cumin, a bit of cinnamon and fennel. This yellow sauce is close to an Indian korma curry — mild, with nuts, and creamy (with coconut milk, in this case). We ordered it with chicken, though you could choose beef, shrimp, tilapia, or for a $2 upcharge, salmon.
Recommended for appetizers or combined for a meal are the bamboo egg rolls, finger-size delicacies fried crisp and served with herbs and lettuce for wrapping and a fish sauce for dipping (there are 10 to an order, so make a meal from it if you wish). The golden dragon fried dumplings are nice, with a pork and shrimp filling wrapped in a wonton skin and fried. Also very good was the banh xeo, a savory crepe filled with pork and shrimp, served — of course — with lettuce, herbs (these seem to change, but are typically varieties of mint and basil) and fish sauce for dipping.
The first bowl of pho bo vien was so good that I tried it on our second visit, but to grave disappointment. The broth was ordinary, as was the chicken broth in the pho ga.
Address: 990 N. Germantown Pkwy.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Reviewer’s choice: Pho bo vien ($8.95); bamboo egg rolls ($6.95); banh xeo ($7.95); curry, $10.95).
Alcohol: Wine and beer.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars