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To Be 

Owner's restrained hand guides Vietnamese restaurant

Charlotte entrepreneur Be Phan has been around the restaurant block a few times. In fact, Phan is unique in the fact that she has had restaurants in five diverse areas of town: Central Avenue, Quail Hollow, 51 and Carmel, Ballantyne and now Myers Park.

She and Hien Le, her husband, opened Huong Viet, a landmark Vietnamese restaurant on Central Avenue in 1990 and then later sold it. Next, the couple opened Cafe Saigon in Quail Corners. These first restaurants served a traditional Vietnamese menu. In 1997, Phan took a different spin on Vietnamese cuisine and opened the upscale Cafe Saigon on Highway 51; she later sold this restaurant. Phan's shining creation, though, was the brilliant and short-lived Saigon Cafe in Ballantyne, a restaurant she opened in 2003 with the extraordinarily talented European chef Axel Dikkers (Pastis). They sold that restaurant after a year; the concept was too early for Ballantyne.

Phan's resume is exhausting. In addition to restaurants, she and Hien have owned an Asian market on South Boulevard, four nail shops, and a convenience store in Rock Hill. But the amount of time, effort and sweat equity that goes into opening a restaurant cannot be understated.

In June, she opened Be's Café in a small 1950s brick building that has held numerous businesses. Phan contributed the design work and used a vibrant and offbeat palette of blues, greens, violets, oranges and yellows. Comfortable booths line the walls, and a small bar area is across from the main entrance.

The focused menu features Vietnamese cuisine with a few Thai dishes. Vietnamese dishes embrace clean herbaceous flavors such as basil and cilantro, while Thai dishes tend to be more fiery. However, both cuisines balance the five "flavors": sour, salty, sweet, hot and bitter. Herbs give Vietnamese food its special character. Both Vietnamese and Thai cuisines heavily rely on the trained palate of the cook to create a tapestry of textures and flavors.

If you're familiar with Phan's cuisine, you'll notice her restrained hand. There are no fire-breathing chilies here unless you ask for them. At Be's Café, Phan continues her take on upscale ethnic dining. The menu is written in English and offers the better known Vietnamese and Thai dishes such as pho, crepes, curries and pad Thai. Her service staff is effective and knowledgeable about the dishes and wine list.

One of the delights of Be's Café is the variety of rolls, a traditional street food in Vietnam where they're sliced diagonally into manageable, candy-sized portions. The portions of the deep fried roll (or, in current menu speak, "crispy") are addicting, but it's the fresh rolls, with the shelf life of five minutes, which are the true heart of the starter portion of the menu. The marinated chicken skewers were equally good.

The food here comes stylishly plated on canvas white. The rice vermicelli is quite lush with its ingredients and lovely to look at. Grilled shrimp surround the edge while another round of crisp and meaty spring roll morsels mound the bottom layers with noodles, green lettuce leaves and bean sprouts; this is then feathered with grilled chicken. The chicken stir fry was redolent with lemongrass and spiked by a heady hit of chilies.

No need to rack up debt on the plastic here. Most dinner appetizers are $5, soups are $5 to $9, and the entrees range from $11 for vegetarian curry to $19 for shaking beef, although most entrees are $15 or less. The wine list is short but well chosen.

The portions are large and getting to dessert may be a challenge. The nicest desserts on the menu tend to be variations of Phan's old favorites: a ginger flan and a diverting "Chocolate Dynamite," a small pyramid bursting with rich and smoothing chocolate.

Competent is the word that best describes Phan's restaurants. However, one of her problems as a restaurateur who has sold her establishments is this: If the quality of that restaurant diminishes and customers are not aware of the change in ownership, whose reputation is tarnished? After Phan sold Saigon Café in Ballantyne, the quality went straight down the drain. According to Phan, part of the contract stated that the new owners were supposed to change the name after three months. But they didn't. "They even had my articles still on the wall." So if a customer had visited Saigon Café toward the end of that restaurant's life, he may have been puzzled by all the awards Dikkers and Phan received that were still posted on the walls.

This time, Phan used her own name for the restaurant. "I want my customers to find me," she said. "I left the kitchen for one year. I missed it. I love to cook."

Phan's food is well-composed, fresh and flavorful. She has returned to the well-crafted dishes that have proven to be her bread and butter over the past 15 years.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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