Dear Readers: So intrigued was our loyal friend and reader Hanh Le (aka our very own Miss Saigon) by our recent posts on the mediocrity of Vietnamese eateries, that she sent us this commentary all the way from Connecticut. Consider it a primer on the appreciation of Southeast Asian cooking, and please join with ELV in saying cam on (thank you in Vietnamese) to her for these pearls of wisdom:
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away known as Las Vegas, I use to dine with Mr. Curtas on a regular basis. Alas, my luck has changed, but back in the day, we shared many a bite at the local Vietnamese eateries. I even shared my mother’s authentic Vietnamese pork chops and noodles with him.
But his recent admission that he couldn’t distinguish one Vietnamese eatery from another proved to me what I always thought: unless you’re Asian, you can’t judge good Asian food. I am partially joking.
Since then, I have been all over Vietnam, and tasted really amazing and not so good Vietnamese food, and the food coming from my mother’s kitchen always remains in solid first place (except for the roadside pho place in Saigon, that was to die for, but I attribute that delectable goodness to the use of MSG, something that is strictly verboten in the Le household). So, next time you hunker down at your favorite Vietnamese eatery, here’s some clues to determine whether what you’ve been served is good or just white-washed Vietnamese food:
Pho: The national food of Vietnam and done badly in a lot places. The key to excellent pho is in the broth, if done correctly, takes hours to prepare using pounds and pounds of beef bones, ginger, onions and careful clarification. Your broth should be clear and not brown and taste of rich beef goodness with a hint of anise and clover. But taste it before adding any condiments otherwise you can easily *mask* all the pho broth goodness. If it is brown, either it is old, the chef did not do a good job *cleaning the broth* or worst yet, they used pho bouillon cubes (sad but true). A lot of pho I have tastes watered down and flavorless, which means they did not expend the time, effort adn expense to do it correctly.
Bun Bo Hue: A spicy beef noodle soup, with an altogether different flavor from that of pho. It gets its red coloring from annatto seeds (also called the poor man’s saffron), and is filled with a strong lemon grass flavor. When done correctly, bun bo hue’s richness also comes from its beef broth flavor but also from a sauce made on the side but added of the last minute of lemon grass, garlic and hot chili pepper flakes sauteed in annatto seed oil. Some may feel that bun bo hue has a distinctly fishy taste, and that may come from from the fact that it is seasoned with nam ruoc, or shrimp paste, which is not for the faint of heart. Again, the richness of the broth, which is infused into the think slices of beef separates the amazing bun bo hue from that of the mediocre.
Summer rolls aka goi cuon: The fresh rolls made of rice paper are stuffed with shrimp, pork, bun (vermicelli), bean sprouts, mints and what other herbs a Vietnamese chef may have in her kitchen. A good roll starts with the rice paper — if the rice paper is too chewy or dry, it either means that they have not been dipped in water sufficiently, or more usually, that the rolls have been sitting around for too long. The rice paper should compliment the rolls inside rather than overwhelm it. The stuff should strike a balance between the noodles, the vegetables and the meat. I find a lot of rolls are overstuffed with noodles and vegetables thereby making it impossible to even recognize that there is shrimp and pork in the roll. I know it sounds completely obvious, but, you should be able to taste all the delicate flavors contained therein simultaneously.
Com/Bun thit nuon: Rice or vermicelli with grilled pork is a great introduction to Vietnamese food. Good Vietnamese BBQ uses salt, sugar, lemongrass, chili peppers, peanuts, green onions and sesame oil for a seasoning and all are pretty readily apparent on a piece of BBQ. The most important thing, however, is that the BBQ is not overcooked. It should be juicy enough so that the juices from the meat run into your nuoc mam (the sauce that accompanies the dish), so you get the tang of the sauce with flavors of the meat for your rice or noodles.
I hope this primer on Vietnamese food has been helpful. As it is an all time favorite of mine to cook and consume, I love that it is become so readily available. Hopefully, all the competition will help weed out the very good from just the passable.