The Ten Umbrellas

"I'm confused," I say.

"What about?" Carla asks.


"Fusion confusion! Are you Confucian?"

Wow. She's actually laughing.

Which is kind of a miracle, 'cause once again we've missed out on her dream lunch, the $8.95 buffet at the India Princess here at Fourth and University. This time, we arrived before her doctor's appointment. But dammit, it's 2:30, and still too late. Carla stared at me when I told her the time. I thought she was trying to decide which eye to gouge out. Then I realized she was looking across Fourth to a corrugated iron fence painted black and yellow to look like bamboo. It sheltered a little oasis in the corner of a strip-mall parking lot, with three grass palapa umbrellas, and a sign over the shop behind the fence saying "Bambu."

Carla squints. "'Asian Fusion Cuisine'? Okay. Let's try that."

Man, I owe this place, whatever it cooks. Lickety-split, I'm hobbling her over to the strip mall. Inside the restaurant, first thing I notice is ten pink umbrellas hung upside-down, like giant lampshades. Must look spectacular at night. Next thing is the swirly art hanging on the walls, with real 3-D flowers sprouting from painted stalks. Not bad. About $500 per, according to chef Alexandria, the owner, who hands us two yellow menus.

"Go sit down," she says. "I'll come out."

We decide to plant ourselves outside, under one of the brown plastic-grass palapas. OK, we're in a parking lot, but what with real palm trees and some flaky-bark eucalyptus nearby -- plus the painted corrugated-iron bamboo forest -- it has a nice feel.

"Bedford," says Carla. "We've only got half an hour before the doctor."

Got it. I look over the starters, choices like edamame, "healthy steamed soybeans lightly salted [$3.00]" and an "earth, wind, and sea" skewer of steak, chicken, and shrimp with choice of sauces like spicy peanut, chili lime, and sesame lime ($6.00). There are also rice-paper wraps of chicken, shrimp, or veggies for $5.00 ($6.00 for shrimp).

The big stuff's on the inside pages. Chinese chopstick salad, with shredded chicken, fried rice noodles, mandarin oranges, toasted almonds, and "salad greens tossed with Asian dressing," costs $7.00. Or, ooh, mango salad, with cucumbers, zucchini, bean sprouts, and mango tossed in a pan-Asian dressing ($7.50). Sea Salad looks good too: grilled salmon or shrimp with glass noodles and greens ($8.50).

They have a pho, Vietnamese soup, and the two most famous Thai soups, Tom Kai, a chicken soup with coconut milk ($7.00), or Tom Yum, a shrimp soup with lemon grass that I only like when it's screamingly spicy-hot ($8.50).

"I know what I'm having," Carla says.

I scan through the specials, seared Salmon Teriyaki ($8.50), Adobo delight, the Filipino grilled-chicken dish ($7.00), noodle dishes like Pha Thai or Drunken Noodles (both $8.00, or $9.00 with shrimp or salmon).

But when chef Alexandria comes out, I order the pho, the Vietnamese soup. I chose soup 'cause I reckon I can glop that down quick.

"I'll have the Indo-Chinese burrito with steak," Carla says coolly.

"What?" I say.

"Burritos, darling."

Dang. Hadn't seen the last page, "Asian Burritos," $7.00 each. The Maui has seared chicken, pineapple, and jasmine rice. The Thai is a peanutty affair, with chicken and rice, and the Indo-Chinese comes with chicken or steak, rice noodles, carrots, green onions, and cucumber. It's wrapped with ginger-soy sauce into a cilantro tortilla and comes with little pots of chili-lime and sesame-lime sauces.

My chicken pho's good, but I'd forgotten how bland Vietnamese stuff can be, compared to, say, fiery Thai. I splot lots of Kikkoman soy in, plus some thick, red-hot sauce and that helps. And, yes, I enjoy the fresh mint.

Then Carla shoves her plate my way. The second half of her angle-cut burrito sits there, steaming.

"Try it," she says. "So-o fresh. And these little sauces are to die for."

I chomp in. Pour some of that sesame and lime over the rice noodles and steak (there's plenty of tender chunks), and you get a briney, seductive flavor you wish could last forever. Carla swears she tasted the cilantro in the tortilla.

So here's another miracle. Next day, Carla's yakking with our neighbor Linda, and Carla says, "Why don't we all go out to lunch?"

"Where?" Linda asks.

"Well, Ed and I discovered this little Asian fusion place with the greatest burritos..."

Result: we're back at Bambu. We eat inside this time. Carla's into her Indo-Chinese burrito again, Linda's eating Drunken Noodles with chicken ($8.00 with chicken, steak, or tofu, $9.00 with shrimp or salmon), and I'm trying the Sea Salad with wild salmon on glass noodles and salad greens ($8.50). It's fine, but I regret not having the danged burrito. Fish is fish, and I ain't great on it, despite the best efforts of the Asian dressing.

Hot sauce to the rescue.

It turns out that chef Alexandria and her mom, Argentina, have traveled all over China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, India, looking at food on every trip. Alexandria -- she's one of those Energizer Bunnies -- shows us a picture of herself working in a Saigon pho restaurant, learning how to make the stuff. That's dedication.

"I'm still confused about fusion," I say as we get back out onto Fourth.

Carla shakes her head. "Fusion's my Indo-Chinese burrito," she says. "How confusing can that be?"

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