Eating with the theater crowdand liking it.

DESPITE APPEARANCES, Bambuza is not a franchise or part of a chain. Yes, it's practically inside the Washington State Convention Center. Sure, it looks like a new-concept Starbucks with its glossy, earth-toned decor lit by strings of tiny white lights. It's true the "Vietnamese bistro" serves a loose brand of Southeast Asian cuisine, offering Dungeness crab cakes and catfish alongside satay and vegetarian pho. Thing is, some of it is pretty good. I'd not given much thought to Bambuza hadn't noticed it, actuallyuntil recently when I stopped in for dinner with out-of-town guests before a show at the Paramount. Our friendly waitress answered our questions about the pan-Asian menu. We found out that Bambuza rolls are cold rice-paper wraps of shrimp and pork, served with peanut sauce ($6). And the five-spice sweet potato side is not mashed sweet potato but rather white potatoeshence the grey colorpuréed and seasoned with five different spices. We passed on the Bambuza rolls in favor of something fried. The crispy prawn rolls ($8) we settled on were golden and meatytasty in the way of frozen pizza rolls one might microwave as a Super Bowl snack. A green papaya salad with shrimp and lime vinaigrette ($4) was pleasantly tangy and refreshing. And a ginger ahi starter ($9) was lightly seared and properly melt-in-your-mouth soft with a pleasing, delicate crust. Appetizer plates were cleaned in a hurry and, on the whole, the first course received high marks from all present. Entrées were not as praiseworthy as their predecessors. Fish were bathed in dull sweetness: salmon smothered under a coconut curry sauce ($16), snapper encrusted in macadamia and butter sauce ($16). Both were fine for a bite or two, then the sweetness became cloying. A garlic and black-pepper tenderloin ($19) was tasty, as was the modestly spicy lemon grass chicken dish ($11), but as a whole, entrée flavors were indistinct; with the exception of the lemon grass chicken, everything tasted too much alike. The accompanying sides saved the meal. The five-spice potatoes were a delicately sweet treat. Asparagus, lightly sautéed with shallots and ginger, was crisp and good. And the beloved green papaya salad recurred as a side to the lemongrass chicken. With some entrée-tweaking and a little self-confidence, Bambuza could take itself from spotty to spot-on. In the meantime, here's a strategy to getting the most out of the bistro: Stick to starters and sides. Go for happy hourSunday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m.when all starters, sides, beer, and wine are half-price. And stick around for dessert. You can't go wrong with fried bananas and Vietnamese coffee.

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