Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Guided Tour of Vietnam . . .

or at least one restaurant’s menu.

I know a lot about Chinese food. I know a little about Thai food. I know nothing about Vietnamese food. Fortunately for Chuck and me, we had his cousin Raina and her husband Jesse as our guides as we tried to navigate the almost eighty-item menu at Da Vang Vietnamese restaurant.

Da Vang is located less than a mile from Raina and Jesse’s home and sits in a somewhat shabby strip shopping center. Décor is nonexis-tent. A local food blogger described Da Vang thusly: “Viet-namese restaurants really have a knack for finding nondescript, cheerless locations. Here on 19th Avenue and Campbell, you’ll find Da Vang ensconced in a squat, run-down building. It’s one of those times where you should really get over the appearance and concentrate on the food” (Wandering

The Vietnamese kitchen is so sacred that it is inhabited by its own dieties. The spiritual guardian of the hearth must have its due and the most important object in the kitchen is the altar. The altar shown here (left) was in the dining room.

The location may be nondescript and cheerless, but it didn’t prevent Da Vang from being named 2010’s Best Vietnamese restaurant by New Times (Phoenix). “It can feel overwhelming to peruse Da Vang's menu for the first time—so many choices, so little time. (Thank goodness it's numbered!) But don't worry, because everything at this humble hole-in-the-wall is just what you're craving, if you love authentic Vietnamese eats…. Enjoy a generous, steaming bowl of pho chock full of sliced beef, brisket, tendon, tripe, and tender rice vermicelli; a hot, seafood-laden crepe (banh xeo); or some tasty barbecued pork fashioned into a baguette sandwich (banh mi). You'll leave well-fed for just a few bucks—a good incentive to come back frequently.

“Among people who love real-deal Vietnamese food, Da Vang has quite the following. It’s been around for 18 years and is owned by the Ly family. The vibe is friendly and seat-yourself casual, and service is swift. With 79 items, the menu seems sprawling, but just look at the common denominators: plenty of pork, seafood, and beef. Sometimes it’s just a question of what you prefer to eat them with. Egg noodles or rice noodles? Rice paper or steamed rice? Highlights include the barbecued pork and shrimp dishes, the seafood hot pot, and the pho…And then there are the sandwiches—at two bucks apiece, they’re a jaw-dropping steal” (from the New Times web site).

We started by sharing two orders of spring rolls: Goi Cuon Tom Thit (right in the photo on the right)—rice paper filled with shrimp, pork, rice noodles, lettuce, sprouts, and mint—and Bi Cuon Thit Nuong—rice paper filled with shredded pork, lettuce, rice noodles, and mint. These came with a hoisin and sesame dipping sauce topped with a sprinkling of grated carrot and crushed peanut. While I consider most Chinese restaurant egg rolls to be extremely nasty, I love the fresh textures and fresh flavors of spring rolls. My favorite was the Goi Cuon Tom Thit, while Chuck preferred the Bi Cuon Thit Nuong.

Each table contains a tray containing fish sauce, hoisin, chile paste, soy sauce, and sriracha—a paste of chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar—and salt and my new favorite Asian condiment. Raina and I added a generous dollop of the sriracha to our sauce while Jesse and Chuck abstained.

Judging by the scowling expression on the face of our server, I think that by the time we were ready to order we had severely tested his patience. But finally our decisions were made. For Raina it would be the Ca Chien—crispy fried fish with fish sauce. And she requested a side order of steamed vegetables. The menu didn’t identify the variety of fish, but Raina and I speculate that it was sea bass. Whatever it was, it was firm and had a taste similar to swordfish. It was especially tasty when you went to the condiment selection and added some fish sauce and soy.

Chuck thought that he was ordering the Dau Hoa Lan Xao Thap Cam (thank heavens the menu listed the ingredients for each dish) which should have included beef, shrimp, sole fillet, and tofu with snow peas, carrots, mushrooms, and onions. Due to a communication glitch with our server, he got instead what I call the master recipe for this dish which only contained the beef in a dark and peppery sauce. This was the only one of the four dishes that came to the table already spiced. As you would expect in an Asian restaurant, the vegetables in the dish were still crisp and made a nice texture contrast with the soft and tender beef slices.

Thanks to Raina and Jesse’s brief educational session, I ordered the Bun Tom Nuong, which is described as a salad and which I thoroughly enjoyed. First comes a layer of julienned cucumber, next a layer of shredded lettuce, then some bean sprouts, and then a layer of rice noodles. My order called for BBQ shrimp which topped the whole dish. Alongside was a dish of fish sauce in which a small amount of grated carrot was floating. You pour the dish of sauce over the contents of the bowl, add some of the condiments to your taste preference, and start slurping down the noodles and vegetables. This was a riot of both contrasting textures and flavors and was totally delicious.

Jesse’s choice—the “small” bowl of Hu Tieu Bot Gao was a soup of containing pork, shrimp, and squid with rice noodles in a light broth. This was served with a plate of cilantro, lettuce, onion, basil, scallions, jalapeno peppers, bean sprouts, and mint to be mixed—as much or as little you like—into the basic soup. Then you head for the bottles of condiments. Jesse gave both Chuck and me a small bowl to sample and it was fun to taste; add a condiment, taste again, add another condiment, and taste again. What a great way to learn about the complexity of Vietnamese food.

It is always comforting to walk into an ethnic restaurant and notice that ninety percent of the diners appear to be of that nationality and that was the case here. Perhaps our server’s surly expression was reserved for us non-Asians or perhaps he sneers at everyone. Whatever, he lost Da Vang a half an Addie and lowered our rating to 4.5 Addies.

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