Heart of gold

Arc-en-Ciel has been one of our favorite Chinese-Vietnamese restaurants for a long time. We had heard its Arlington branch was something, if we could find it. So we spent last Friday night in the depths of darkest Arlington, wandering around looking for a branch of a restaurant based in Garland. We found it in a pan-Asian shopping center to which I'll return. It had abig Asian grocery store, a noodle shop, an oriental video store, several other oriental restaurants, and a wedding store--a not-so-little bit of southeast Asia in a new strip mall. There's obviously more to eat in the neighborhood.

I don't know what I'd expected this Arc-en-Ciel to be like, but a storefront the size of a Safeway with etched glass doors was not it.

In the early days of MTV there was a music video spoofing Russian fashion--you know, a celebration of the serviceable. That's what Arc-en-Ciel Arlington--a huge restaurant with all the charm of an airplane hangar decorated like a cheap hotel ballroom--reminded us of. A crystal chandelier the size of a Volkswagen hung over the center of the room, but the lighting and the layout had the romance of an assisted-living dining hall, the regiment of tables and chairs lined up so you could easily take attendance if you needed to. The walls were those moveable panels used in meeting rooms and the whole room had the feeling of a temporary space, like it had just been set up for the evening. Huge as it is, there were lots of people there, though there was room for many, many more, more than you could imagine would ever eat there at one time.

Cold and actually repellent as the place appeared, it was true to its name and had a heart of gold. Our waiter, Mike, was one of the rare ones who seem to enjoy working with both food and people at once. He suggested authentic and favorite dishes from the Vietnamese section of the menu. We ate the Arc-en-Ciel soup, a gelatinous white broth of minced shrimp, crab, egg, fish tripe, and rice noodles, and, sipping the lemonade made from salted preserved fruit that he recommended for a sore throat, I felt a cure coming on. Minced shrimp, molded onto sticks of fresh sugarcane and grilled, came with a platter of fresh lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, carrots, and rice-paper crépes so you could roll your own. The spring rolls were some of the prettiest ever, pink shrimp peeking through the translucent wrappers, stuffed with vermicelli and greens, too. The simple pork strips, cut cardboard thin, grilled, flavored with fish sauce and served over steamed sticky rice, were a marvel of balance--substantial but not heavy, with the heft of meat but not the richness. We should eat like this all the time.

Mike was so helpful, we even trusted him for dessert, and he brought us the three-color bean ice, a parfait of shaved iced layered with bright green bean thread, little sweet brown beans, and condensed milk. Well, it was very interesting.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Arc-en-Ciel, 2208 New York Ave. at Pioneer Parkway, Arlington, (817) 469-9999. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Second location: 3555 W. Walnut Road, Garland, 272-2188)

Ground Shrimp Over Sugarcane Stick $13.00
Charcoal-Broiled Arc-en-Ciel Soup (Two) $8


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