Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
San Sun moved to
Las Vegas its Washington Street
location last fall after the city claimed the Chinese-Vietnamese
restaurant's former Stockton site for the new subway station. It is hard to document the awesomeness of the new location in less than 3,000 words. So many mirrors and digital displays are mounted on the walls that I didn't know how to photograph the space. Any picture I took would turn out out looking like the funhouse scene from The Lady of Shanghai or a miniature Times Square. There are several different slide shows of menu items, and one, possibly two, basketball games.
I spent the first five minutes of my meal mesmerized by the two 36-inch digital clocks, one of which depicts the time plunging repeatedly into a clear pool of water. Then I practiced seeing how far I had to crane my neck around to spy on every other person in the restaurant (answer: less than 30 degrees). Add to that Chinese New Year cutouts, glittery granite-topped tables, gaudily painted trim, and a 200-item picture menu -- simply awe-inspiring.
While there were enough dishes on the menu to thwart any attempts at finding a specialty, most of the people around us were hunched over bowls of soup. For every type of soup, there were six to ten variations. And for every variation, a choice of eight kinds of noodles (skinny wheat, thick wheat, fat rice).
And so we ordered rice noodles three ways. First, satay-sauce soup noodles with ho fun, fish balls, and triangles of pork skin, fried to puff up and then braised until they became tender again. Despite adding in an extra dollop of the sate sauce from the table -- an umami-boosting blend of peanuts, shrimp paste, garlic, and chiles -- the soup tasted paradoxically thin and fiery. We were more drawn to a plate of stir-fried "true rice" noodles, chubby three-inch-long noodles that were tapered at both ends to suggest they were rolled out by hand, covered in a scrambled-egg pancake.
But the classic pho ga was the loveliest of them all. Toasty fried shallots, flecks of cilantro, and green onion shavings gave the clear chicken broth an aromatic shimmer that floated on top of the delicate broth like a cloud of steam. My tablemate squeeze a little lemon over the top of the bowl, just enough to brighten up the flavors without leaving the broth tart, but I couldn't bring myself to sully the effect with Thai basil or sriracha sauce. It was as simple as the decor was baroque, and I found myself staring into the bowl, swirling the noodles around the broth with my spoon, to counter the sensory overload all around me. Luckily, the trick worked.