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September 7, 2006

heading: Hue=Hungry, Talk of the Table by BOB DORAN, photo of Vietnamese food.

Years ago, in the early '70s, a friend of took a job at a Eureka restaurant called Manora Thai, which, if I remember right, was in the building that now houses Avalon. John had grown up in the restaurant trade, son of an OH's Town House waitress. If it weren't for his serious criminal tendencies he would likely have evolved into a fine chef, but that's another story.

The Manora Thai served the first Southeast Asian food I'd ever tried, and I immediately loved it. There was something about the collision of flavors that grabbed me. John offered his basic understanding of the cuisine as follows: The secret is stimulating every single taste bud on your tongue, even some you didn't know you have. Depending on the dish, hot, sweet, sour, salty, bitter (just a bit) and, very important, fishy flavors vie for prominence. As John put it, "It's like a party in your mouth." (This was long before the Cheez-it folks appropriated the term.)

There was a slight clash of cultures at Humboldt's first Thai restaurant, as the owner incongruously decorated the place with Indian tapestries and big pillows from Cost Plus and brought in bellydancers on the weekends. John was one of the few Americans in the kitchen, a fact that became problematic when the immigration authorities raided the place and sent most of the staff back to Thailand. The Manora Thai disappeared, and for a time the only time I ate Thai food was on trips away from the North Coast.

Thai and Southeast Asian cuisine actually became quite trendy in California not long after that. Still only a handful of such establishments opened here in Humboldt, a fact that's a bit surprising considering the number of Lao and Hmong people who have relocated here.

When Smile of Siam closed earlier this year, to be replaced by yet another Mexican restaurant (a good one I'm told), it left only one place serving Thai cuisine, one with an unimaginative yet self-descriptive name: Thai Cuisine, owned by a friendly Lao family.

Now with the opening of Hue Southeast Asian Cuisine this summer, we're back to two. The new restaurant at 4th and L streets in Eureka took over the space most recently occupied by Ijal's Jamaican Kitchen. Before that, the faux log cabin corner spot was headquarters for The Generous Armenian, and old timers will remember it as the longtime home of Bob's Café.

Hue is another family-operated business, run by Sysay and Viengkeo Syvoravong (with help from their daughter, Malina). With its warm, unpretentious décor, it has a homey feel. The menu includes a mix of Lao, Thai and Vietnamese dishes, which Viengkeo explained are "not that different, just a little bit."

The name? Hue is Lao for hungry.

In two visits to the restaurant, I've tried just a few dishes, and as would be expected some were better than others. The spring rolls we had as a appetizer were a great start, with almost transparent wrappings holding together slivers of cucumber, shredded lettuce and carrots and bits of chicken (optional), flavored with mint and cilantro. A sweet, hot and tangy dipping sauce with crumbles of peanuts hit multiple taste buds, as required. Overall they were cool, light and refreshing as a spring breeze.

I'm a sucker for grilled prawns, so I ordered the Ping Goong, skewered marinated barbequed prawns, which were good, even if the marinade was not as spicy as I'd like. The barbecued pork ordered by one of my dining companions was a disappointment, showing no sign of marinade.

My main entrée was an excellent chicken dish, Prik King Kai, with long slices of chicken and very fresh, al dente green beans in a flavorful ginger sauce. I'll have that one again.

When I returned on my own, I opted for a traditional Lao dish, Larb, a cold beef salad (if you can call spicy chopped meat a salad). Mint, scallions, shallots and lime juice compliment the beef, which is served on a pair of lettuce leaves.

With a bowl of sticky rice (a Lao staple) that probably would have been enough for lunch, but I also ordered a plate of Pad Thai, a generous portion of the classic Thai noodle dish with tamarind sauce and bits of egg. It was good, but I got the sense that the spices may be tamed for the American palate. When I ate the leftovers the next day, I added a big splash of fish sauce and a squirt of Sriracha hot chili sauce to jazz it up.

There's lots more on the menu and I will return. I still want to try the Som Tum, green papaya salad, a traditional Lao/Hmong dish I had before at a Hmong festival. "That one's really hot, and really good," according to Malinka's cousin, who was helping out the day I had lunch.

With the lunch hour over (Hue is closed between 3 and 5 p.m.) I managed to convince Viengkeo to sit down and talk for a moment. She told me she came to the United States from Laos when she was 18, first settling in Kansas City, then coming to Eureka. "I didn't like it over there, and I had family here, so I moved here," she explained.

Running a restaurant is a new thing for the family, yet as Viengkeo noted, the family has been cooking for the public for some time, running a Lao food booth at the county fair for 14 years.

"I never thought I'd have a restaurant, but things came up so fast," she said. "The opportunity came and I thought it would be good to start a little business to make my own living and a living for my family."

As Malina put it, "The restaurant business is not as easy as it sounds." Her mom concurred. "It's a lot of hard work, all day long," she told me. "I've been here since 8:30 this morning. I'll be here until 10:30 tonight, maybe, but it's OK. When I was in Laos I worked harder than this. My dad was a farmer doing rice in the fields. It's much harder than this. This is OK, but it's just a long day."

Hue is still new, and it was clear people are just now discovering it. Business has been good so far. "Sometimes it's so busy [there's] no space to sit down and [people] have to wait and be patient," said Viengkeo. "I'm happy when people come and I know the food's good. They're happy and that makes me feel happy. It's makes the hard work worth it."

Hungry? Hue is located on Hwy. 101 at 1039 4th St. in Eureka. For take out orders or reservations, call 443-2690. The restaurant is open Mondays through Thursdays from 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. and Saturdays, noon-9:30 p.m. Closed each day 3-5 p.m. Sunday is their much-needed day to rest.

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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