by Mel Small
For many of us with long historical memories, the word Da Nang conjures up unpleasant images of the Vietnam War. Danang, as it used to appear in American newspapers, was a major U.S. base in central South Vietnam where the first American combat soldiers came ashore in 1965. The Vietnamese family that runs Da Nang, the month-old restaurant at the busy corner of Main Street and Fourteen Mile Road in Clawson, is doing its best to change those images.
Manager Kim Dao Waldis and her sister Lan Dao, who does most of the cooking using family recipes, are from Da Nang. They left Vietnam with the wave of "boat people" in 1978. Kim, who had been a personal shopper at Neiman Marcus, is responsible for much of the elegant design of her tastefully refurbished 1924 brick building, which once housed a photography studio. Da Nang's two striking burnt-red-hued rooms, which seat about 50 at glass-covered tables with starched white cloths and black linen napkins, are decorated with large handsome mirrors, and flaunt the original piping suspended from the ceiling. Graceful table and glassware and rock gardens with artificial green onions in the large windows enhance the overall experience.
The menu is a work in progress and rather brief compared to other local Asian spots. According to Kim, after they perfect their basics, they will begin adding more dishes, particularly those dealing with fish and shellfish, which are virtually absent from the current bill of fare.
The five appetizers on that bill include the expected egg rolls, spring rolls and crispy wonton shrimp. More unusual are the refreshing shredded cabbage strips and steamed chicken laced with an airy lime dressing ($8). Another recommended starter is an order of pleasantly spongy pork meatballs ($5), gently flavored with lemongrass and served with Lan's ubiquitous "special sauce," a sweet, slightly zingy, clear concoction whose base is the classic nuoc mam fish sauce. Catering to mainstream Anglo diners, her spice levels are very low. They can, of course, be ramped up to the incendiary with the addition of hot chili sauce served on the side.
By now, aficionados of the Vietnamese kitchen are familiar with pho, entire meals in a soup bowl, chock-full of broth, noodles, meat and vegetables. Da Nang's six, somewhat underseasoned broths that are mostly rice-noodle-based, might include slices of round beef, beef flanks, or both combined with meatballs and tripe ($14). The meat in the otherwise satisfactory round beef and beef shanks mélange was a bit chewy on one occasion. The one vermicelli-based noodle soup, which breaks the pattern, contains minced pork and crabmeat.
The five vermicelli mains are highlighted by a combination of nicely grilled boneless pork, with peanuts, cucumbers, carrots and the house sauce. Other options involve pork with egg rolls ($14) and boneless short ribs served with or without the eggrolls along with the same vegetables and sauce.
Those boneless short ribs and the boneless pork also appear over rice ($12) in comparable preparations. Less familiar is bahn beo, steamed miniature rice cakes flecked with tidbits of shredded shrimp and shallots. These translucent gems, which have a raw-oyster-like consistency, are one of the specialties of the cuisine of Hue, the imperial city near Da Nang. Curry chicken stew is another admirable entrée. The slightly assertive curry with tender chicken strips comes with vegetables and, for a French colonial touch, a quite respectable baguette. The baguette, which arrives with the Vietnamese-style beef stew as well, appears only twice on the menu. Although it may not make much culinary sense and certainly violates custom, I would request a baguette with pho or some of the other entrées.
Fried rice with shrimp, sausage, corn and peas and Vietnamese crêpes with ground pork and scallions round out the mains. Although Lan features very few vegetarian dishes, she will gladly substitute tofu for meat or chicken.
With an alcohol license pending, sots will have to make do with Vietnamese iced coffee, green tea, black-bean soy milk and soft drinks.
Directly across from the three-year old Black Lotus brewery and very near to Royal Kubo, Frittata and Due Venti, Da Nang makes an important contribution to the growing reputation of once-sleepy Clawson and its Fourteen Mile-Main crossroads as a prime destination for foodies.
I know there are still many diners who are reluctant to try a Vietnamese restaurant because of the bad taste left in their mouths by that horrendous war or because they feel the food might be too spicy or exotic. The elegant and sedate Da Nang, with its cool recorded jazz, virtual-tour slide show of the country that loops on a large screen, and — aside from the tripe in one dish — entirely accessible lightly seasoned food, presents an interesting introduction to the Vietnamese kitchen. As the brief menu lengthens, it is bound to become even more interesting.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.