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Lido's Lessons

1) Don't judge a restaurant by its building 2) Tofu isn't all bad

I've never seen an uglier building than the one that houses Lido Vietnamese restaurant. The glowering red brick facade of the Main Elgin Center towers threateningly two stories over the scabby potholed parking lot, where incoming customers are greeted by great steaming whiffs of wastewater wafting from manhole covers. Bulging concrete cobblestones mark Lido's entrance, like an undersea excrescence clinging barnaclelike around the doorway of the former drugstore.

It's a strange scene inside, too. Lido's waitstaff carefully tends the wands of incense kept burning in the entryway to ward off the evil sewer spirits. The long, narrow dining room stretches like a bowling alley the depth of the shopping center's shell, vanishing in dimness at its farthest reaches. Up front, plentifully tattooed and pierced denizens crowd the small smoking area, bathed in the eerie, glowing light of the wall-mounted television.

Surreality, I think, is the charm of urban life, especially here, where Midtown waits like a low-rent Snow White to be wakened from her enchanted sleep by the developer's kiss. Meanwhile, adventurous urbanites are magically drawn to Lido by its astonishingly good food and reasonable prices. Hmm -- cheap, steaming platters of authentic Vietnamese food with a knowing, modern edge, crowds of clever cognoscenti, secretive hole-in-the-wall location -- it all reminds me of those heady start-up days over at the original Kim Son.

"Don't talk to me about Kim Son," says Khon Lu, whose parents own Lido. With a scornful snort, he adds, "They've turned into Burger King."

Lido, it's true, could never be mistaken for Burger King.
There are two menus at Lido, one long, one short. Insist on the long version -- almost 150 items! -- even though Lu doesn't think you need it. "If I give you that long menu, you'll never be able to make up your mind," he threatened us on a recent visit, hiding the menus behind his back. Gleefully, we read each other selections aloud over a starter plate of crisp-skinned Vietnamese egg rolls stuffed with seasoned pork, delightfully nongreasy, and only $4.50 the half-dozen, including the enormous pile of greenery -- fresh mint, deep green lettuce, perky little sprigs of cilantro -- for wrapping. "What sort of wine do you have?" asked one of my friends. "Red or white," said Lu, with an almost straight face. Don't let him fool you: There's a nice little Kendall Jackson white lurking in the wine rack.

Whichever menu you wind up with, start with the short list of house specials. Look especially closely at those dishes prepared with lemon and garlic, particularly the lemon-garlic steak. This hugely popular entree tempts even Lido's most stalwart vegetarians, Lu says; their howls of envy inspired him to design an alternate edition. Made with tofu, of course, it's irresistibly named Rock 'n Roll Tofu ($5.50). "I didn't make up that name," says Lu. "Believe it or not, that's literally what the beef dish is called on the streets of Saigon; I ate it all the time when I was a little kid. I just borrowed its name for the tofu twin."

Would you believe that a party of committed carnivores almost came to blows over Rock 'n Roll Tofu? It's that good. Small cubes of creamy tofu are stir-fried in a vibrant, orange-red hot sauce until they develop a thin, crackly skin, then tossed with fat, soft cloves of roasted garlic and other vegetable goodies. The side dish of dipping sauce is tart with lemon juice, pungent with more garlic and briskly punctuated with black pepper; I briefly considered slurping it straight from the bowl. "If you're not a vegetarian, you should get the lemon-garlic steak," admonishes Lu. "Or if you're not into red meat, try the chicken version." I never thought I'd say this, but, I swear, next time I'm still going to order the tofu.

We were equally blissful over the beef in coconut sauce -- long menu item number 100, I believe ($8.25). Tender slices of beef are bathed in an astonishingly mild Thai-style curry sauce made soupy and rich with coconut milk, entwined with ethereal cellophane noodles and glossy black bits of elephant's ear mushroom, and topped with sprigs of a small, twin-leafed green herb we couldn't identify. The aromatic little leaflets have a bright, peppery flavor like a stand-up cousin to watercress. Lu told me its apparently untranslatable name in Vietnamese, and it sounded roughly like "rau om"; he says it's some sort of aquatic plant, and that's enough information for me.

I should have had more information when I ordered the black pepper squid ($8.25). I vaguely expected delicate little calamari-like rings and tentacles, possibly sauteed, maybe sauced. I should have asked, because what I actually got were thick, muscular slabs of a Jules Verne-sized squid, heartily battered and deep-fried. "Wow, it looks like Kentucky Fried Calamari," joked one of my friends. Dunked in the same lemon-garlic dipping sauce as the Rock 'n Roll Tofu, the squid was delicious but rubbery, requiring a good bit of jaw power to chew through. We thought the same batter more successful on the soft-shell crabs ($10.50), however, simply finished with a little butter, maybe a splash of wine and a sprinkle of sauteed onions. On the daintier crabs, the batter seemed light as tempura, golden and crispy. "I hate a thick, doughy batter," mutters Lu. "It has to be light."

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