The Chinatown International District's popular Vietnamese restaurant, Green Leaf, opened a second branch in the basement of Belltown's Labor Temple. It boasts a full bar and a kitchen that's open until 2 a.m.

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Seattleites savvy about Vietnamese food need no introduction to Green Leaf. Since opening in the Chinatown International District in 2005, the Kuang family’s tiny spot became so popular it eventually expanded to two floors. Now uptowners won’t have to travel so far for their bánh xèo fix: Green Leaf sprouted a Belltown branch in May. In keeping with that neighborhood’s spirit-fueled, late-night pursuits, this one boasts a full bar and a kitchen open until 2 a.m.

I had misgivings as I descended the red-tiled stairs and walked through a gloomy corridor in the basement of the Labor Temple at First Avenue and Clay Street. And then I saw potted orchids, and beyond them, a dim, red-lit lounge with velvet-backed bar seats and club chairs of woven straw grouped around tables. A waitress chirped hello.

Faux bamboo wainscoting trims the long, narrow dining room. Perhaps to compensate for its subterranean locale, it’s lit a bit too brightly with lovely, ceramic ceiling fixtures and less-lovely wall sconces made of hurricane lamps mounted on ship’s wheels. Glossy black tables lined up in rows are packed a tad too tightly for the wide-shouldered, broad-in-the-beam armchairs that flank them. The cramped feeling is amplified by a tendency to seat diners in clusters, instead of spreading them around the room: easier for service maybe, but less comfy for customers.

The many regulars know what they want and don’t spend much time scanning the menu’s 100 selections. (Yes, they are numbered.) For first timers, here’s a cheat sheet of what I sampled on my visits:

#12. The Vietnamese pancake (bánh xèo). This is the don’t-leave-without-it dish. The aroma of coconut milk enveloped the table even before we sliced into this generous golden crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. Cut a wedge, wrap it in a lettuce leaf with some purple basil, cilantro and mint, and then anoint it with nuoc cham (like sweet vinaigrette funky with fish sauce).

#28. Green papaya salad. Another must, the cool, crunchy strands of papaya mingle with carrot and jicama, mint and basil, crushed peanuts and frizzled shallots. Thin, marinated, deftly charred grilled chicken cutlets were our choice of a topper, but shrimp or tofu are other options.

#14. Deep fried sweet yam with shrimp. It’s debatable which is sweeter, the seafood or the tuber, but both are battered and fried to a light, salty, crisp and take well to a dip in sweet/hot chili sauce.

#83. Vermicelli with grilled beef “Lop” leaves. Thumb-size packages of ground beef wrapped in wild betel leaves accompany this cold rice noodle salad. Grilling gives the leaves a brittle, blackened flavor, but the savory meat stays soft and faintly pink in the middle. The bowl is lined with lettuce, pungent herbs, crisp vegetables and fried onion. Give it all a toss with some nuoc cham and dive in.

#52. Rare beef and brisket pho. Deliciously fatty slices of brisket bolster a pale, aromatic broth in a satisfying version of Vietnam’s signature noodle soup.

#64. Fried duck bone-in egg noodle soup. A fried duck leg and thigh and big, meaty mushrooms lurk in the dark, salty depths of a burly broth, along with gai lan leaves, scallions and crinkly egg noodles. Pickled carrot, jicama and jalapeño come on the side.

#32. Stir-fried curry shrimp with onion and carrots. This wasn’t bad, just ordinary, and carelessly prepared with the onions cut too large and undercooked.

#36. Marinated catfish cooked in a claypot. The inky sauce had the right deep flavor but not enough caramelization and the fish tasted muddy.

#41. Salted pepper squid. These too-chewy morsels had just enough salty charm that they disappeared anyway.

#92. Grilled pork chops. So thin, great flavor, but so overcooked they were a chore to chew.

Cocktails go from classic to kooky: The Boulevardier smoothly blends bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth. The German digestive, Underberg, adds herbal notes to a fruity rum tiki. The audacious Vietchelada, a sriracha-laced variation on the Mexican Michelada, muddles lime, basil and beer. Belltown should really take to this place.

Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on 97.3 KIRO FM. Listen to past shows atwww.KIRORadio.com/letseat.

Reach Cicero at providencecicero@aol.com.