FOR TUCSON, SUMMER is the time of a natural slowing of events. Less money in town demands a kind of frugality on behalf of diners and venues alike. A combination of tweedy budget constraints and an honest desire to partake of some solid Vietnamese food led me to the door of Three Sisters.
Walking into the restaurant was similar to entering a tomb, a dimly lit, cool room utterly devoid of life. Seeing as it was a searing 105 outside, this seemed like an attractive prospect, and I edged further into the dining room. Oddly, there were no customers or staff. A few fish drifted in an aquarium. The thought flitted across my mind that perhaps the restaurant was closed and someone forgot to lock the door. There I was, breaking the law, but it was hot outside. People do irrational things in the heat, and seeking solace and comfort in a cool and dimly lit room hardly felt criminal. Besides, I was hungry.
Eventually, I overheard a noisy conversation in the kitchen. I mustered up a hearty hello. No response. Finally, I seated myself at a table and tried not to shock the woman who eventually emerged from the kitchen. She looked a little peeved. It was hard to tell if this was because she actually had a customer or if she was genuinely startled, but the way she shot the menu across the table didn't create a warm sense of welcome.
Not wanting to upset her any further, and truly thirsty, I rapidly placed an order for a salty lemonade ($1.25), a quirky beverage made from fermented lemons that tastes like Gatorade on steroids. My unenthusiastic server shuffled back off to the kitchen where muted slamming and banging noises indicated an order being filled.
A quick scan of the 115-plus menu items cast some doubt, since menus that offer so many choices usually spell out imminent disaster: It is difficult to train a staff or keep so many varied ingredients in stock. Especially in the off season.
The salty lemonade, however, was an encouraging sign, flecked with bits of fermented lemon, and staunchly reassuring of authenticity. I swiftly placed a lunch order under the scrutinizing eye of the server. She recommended the Cauliflower Delight ($2.95) and said that the Five Spices Roasted Chicken ($4.75) was a worthy dish. I quickly agreed and sat back while she disappeared into the kitchen.
I waited. And waited. And waited. A few buzzing flies kept me company. After several small eternities, lunch was served. Both the cauliflower and the Five Spices Chicken arrived with a not-too-gentle flick of the wrist.
The Cauliflower Delight, hammered-flat cauliflower flowerets rolled and deep-fried in a nut dust (the menu says almonds but it tastes like peanuts), was fried to golden brown and served with a peanut dipping sauce. The earthy, sweaty flavor of cauliflower combined with the peanuts made this a fortifying experience. One I'll probably avoid in the future.
The Five Spices Chicken was disappointing. An overcooked and greasy chicken, still served on the bone, had its skin crisped (almost burnt) and was mostly salty. No discernible aromatic spices were present to salvage the experience. Needless to say, this plate stayed full.
An insane soundtrack wore on, replete with bells and a shrieking soprano. No one ever returned to question if I enjoyed the meal or needed anything more. Eventually, I went and stood at the counter and waited for the server to emerge from the back again. In time, the bill was paid.
Incinerating heat can invoke the most surreal of experiences, and chalking this up to some odd aberration of heat, I resolved to return, perhaps when evening fell, with witnesses at my side. This time when we entered the restaurant, a few tables were already full. Two waiters were evident and promptly greeted us.
My companion decisively placed an order for Lemon Beef Salad ($6.50), apparently a favorite. I agree that one of the more enjoyable aspects of Vietnamese cooking is the flair for marrying combinations that juxtapose texture and flavor. In this case, a heap of lettuce chopped with mint, cilantro, canned fried onion and a sweet peanut dressing completely enveloped several thin slices of cooked, chilled beef.
Not particularly impressed, we went on to order Charbroiled Pork with Rice Noodles ($4.95), a traditional and oft replicated dish. We worked up a faint hope. After a considerable wait, we were served a lovely bowl of rice noodles topped with cilantro, carrot, cabbage, cucumber, crushed peanut and a fan of charbroiled pork. The balance of ingredients and the simple presentation made for an elegant and simple dish. We left not a shred behind.
Still wanting to sample a bit more of the menu, we tried the Bo Tam Nuong Vi ($13.95). Although no translation was provided, this is a do-it-yourself spring roll dish. A hot grill was brought tableside, and we cooked our own lemon grass-marinated shrimp and paper-thin slices of beef. With a platter of condiments (carrot, mint, cilantro, sprouts, lettuce, rice noodles) we happily built our own spring rolls. Rice paper is a bit tricky to work with, but we soon got the hang of it, and actually found ourselves enjoying not only the meal, but the odd ambiance that makes up Three Sisters.
While a quiet venue, the room was once appointed with great care. Deep booths, lushly upholstered, and the natty red napkins that cheerfully bedeck every table attest to a careful eye for detail. An odd inner sanctum devoted to Vietnamese trinkets is open for perusal, the remnants of a store once devoted to Oriental exports. This time, the friendly servers and a general sense of well-being pervaded the place. Perhaps this is what happens when a restaurant actually has patrons; it stirs to life. Even the warbling sopranos on the soundtrack remained only a vague disturbance.
We surrendered to our waiter's insistence that we try the venerated sisters' homemade coconut ice cream. The Kem Lanh ($1.50) is a voluptuous find. Flecked with grains of shredded coconut and flavored with a luminous touch of real vanilla bean and coconut milk, this vanish-in-the-mouth ice cream is easily some of the best I've tasted.
While the menu at Three Sisters must be approached with caution, it is possible to have the peculiar and perhaps worthy experience that comes from solitary dining. If you have never had the odd pleasure of sitting adrift in the happy sound of overheard kitchen conversation, the clatter and chop of busy knives and sizzling pans, and known that what you are hearing is a dish being prepared exclusively for you, then perhaps the time has come to indulge yourself. Just be sure to leave yourself plenty of time.