07/14/2006 — It's no secret that the Vietnamese cuisine around here is less than spectacular.
Many places that claim to serve the stuff are actually dishing up generic Chinese fare.
The two cuisines are vastly different, though.
Most Vietnamese restaurant owners I have talked to believe that people in the Boise area wouldn't like (or understand) authentic Vietnamese cuisine. And that's why mu shu and kung pao often take center stage.
But local palates will never learn if the Vietnamese restaurants keep throwing poorly interpreted Chinese food at them.
In January, Meridian residents Cody and Hong Do, who hail from southern Vietnam, wanted to help change all that by opening Fusion Asian Grill, a restaurant that serves predominantly Vietnamese fare.
Don't be surprised to see some standard Chinese and Thai recipes as well (thus the name).
There's even an Asian twist on fondue and Korean tableside-barbecue dishes, to add an exclamation point to the fusion concept.
The maroon-colored dining room speaks to a pan-Asian sensibility, with ornate Chinese screens and faux bamboo trees. Long church pews line the walls, under framed Oriental prints.
One stormy evening, we braved the traffic on Eagle Road en route to Fusion Asian Grill.
After being stuck behind a panoramic convoy of minivans (for nearly 30 minutes), we were ready for cold bottles of Hue beer ($3.50).
This rice lager (from central Vietnam) played well with an order of crispy spring rolls ($5.95/cha gio); four golden-fried logs packed with garlicky pork, shrimp, cellophane noodles and slivers of black mushroom.
These crunchy rolls were served next to customary heaps of greenleaf lettuce, fresh cilantro sprigs and sliced cucumber — intended to be wrapped around the spring rolls and then dipped in a small bowl of vinegar-spiked golden fish sauce (nuoc cham).
Next up was Vietnamese-style fried catfish ($11.95) and grilled beef and shrimp ($8.95), a bowl of silky rice noodles entangled with scallion, carrot, bean sprouts, cilantro, slightly overcooked prawns, chopped peanuts and tender pieces of smoky beef.
The catfish was surprisingly tasty, lightly breaded and smothered with sticky sweet chili sauce. Plates of fragrant jasmine rice and sautéed veggies (broccoli and zucchini) were there as side dishes.
We finished our meal with a large scoop of creamy coconut-pineapple ice cream ($2.50) topped with golden caramel sauce.
On our second visit, we were intrigued by the thought of pho (pronounced "fah"), a popular beef noodle soup that's eaten for breakfast in Vietnam.
But the near-triple-digit temperatures steered us in the direction of a cool lily blossom salad ($8.50), a refreshing mix of crunchy lily blossom root, plump shrimp, tender pork shreds, fresh mint and cilantro sprigs and crushed peanuts, served with nuoc cham.
Fusion Asian Grill also makes shaken beef salad and wok-seared chicken salad.
The hot and spicy tofu ($7.95) was a disappointment, mostly because the cubes of fried soybean curd were cardboard-tough, tossed in a piquant red chili sauce, next to cucumber-pineapple salad and steamed jasmine rice.
We also felt let down by the seafood clay pot ($9.95). This fried rice dish (served in an earthenware pot) came with extremely tough pieces of calamari, overcooked shrimp and trace amounts of Dungeness crabmeat, mingled with scrambled egg, scallion and peas.
Redemption came in the form of chicken lettuce wraps ($6.50), a flavorful mound of minced, grilled chicken intertwined with water chestnuts, black mushrooms, scallion, garlic and spongy rice noodles. Crispy cups of iceberg were there for wrapping around the savory mixture.
All gripes aside, Fusion Asian Grill does a better job than most area "Vietnamese" places when it comes to serving Vietnamese fare. And the black-clad servers are friendly and efficient.
James Patrick Kelly is The Idaho Statesman's restaurant critic. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.