Day 6: Vietnam
What the hell is Vietnam? Growing up I was always under the impression that “Vietnam” was a war. Sometimes I think they called it “Viet-Fucking-Nam”. Then somebody told me it was actually a “conflict.” But as I was looking at a list of countries for this Personal Food Project in Blog Form (PFPIBF), it turns out that it may have turned into a country at some point. I’m pretty sure everybody over there loves 60s rock and roll, though. Especially when they’re flying around in helicopters and dropping napalm on rice paddies. They do that, right? Or was that us? Oh damn. I think that might have been us. But hey, that’s one of the great perks of this PFPIBF. Rather than actually having to travel anywhere, I get to just go eat the food in an area with tons of signs written all in foreign. I get exactly what I want but with none of the guilt of burned, limbless Vietnamese folks begging me for money. Was that our fault too? Jeez. I guess it was really nice of them to bring all this food over.
I’m starting out at Pho Mien in South El Monte. Thanks to the work of some seriously committed Chowhounders, I’ve learned that most of the pho people eat is filled with MSG to compensate for not cooking the beef broth long enough. For those who want the more subtle and true flavors, Pho Mien is the place to go. Pho is often eaten as breakfast in Vietnam— and let me say, this is a breakfast I can get behind. Waffles? Pancakes? French toast? Please. Give me the beautiful and malleable canvas of a delicate bowl of pho any day of the week. The broth is so gentle and delicate that any additions or modifications you make really shape the soup in beautiful and personally tailored ways. For this meal I’m happy to announce the triumphant return of Ultimate Manilow and Car Accidents Bernstein— now joined by our good friend and Silverlake resident Spenny Loafers. They’re late, but at least they arrive looking like a band of homeless reservoir dogs.
Once seated, we are presented with an ever changing cast of servers, each one speaking almost no English. We start off with a wide range of beverages and rotate them around. Soda sua hot ga (fresh egg and milk in soda), rau ma (pennyworth juice), Vietnamese coffee, iced coffee and chanh muoi (pickle lemon juice). They are all interesting in their own way, but our favorite is the ru ma, which tastes almost like a light wheatgrass juice. For the most part, though, they aren’t things we would go out of our way to drink. Spenny Loafers tries to order orange juice, but none of the many servers seem to understand. They do like to smile a lot, though. On to breakfast. Spenny orders the steak and brisket pho while the rest of us order the dac biet pho bac (raw, tender ground beef served on the side). The food also comes with a plate of herbs, fresh spicy peppers, lime and and three different chili sauces. This is where the personalization comes in. Spenny Loafers, lamenting the realization that his soup has the beef already included, sighs and says “I wanna do the fun, put-it-in-your-shit stuff.” About twenty minutes in we all try each others’ broths. It’s amazing how each one is balanced and delicious in its own way, yet have such differing dominant and recessive flavors. It is really a treat to taste them all side by side. I’m the only one to finish my entire bowl and the broth, chili and noodles are swirling around happily in my stomach. Just like with Thailand a couple of days ago, my senses have been totally awakened and I’m becoming a big fan of southeast Asia. As we wrap up our payment, another server comes up, one we’ve never seen before and in perfect English says “Thank you for coming. I really hope you enjoyed your meal.” Go figure.
Spenny Loafers and Car Acciddents Bernstein have business to attend so they leave Ultimate Manilow and I to our own devices. But Ultimate Manilow has a big time number two brewing and I figure it’s probably a good idea for me to follow suit. The lunching hour is drawing near and we’ve got space to clear. We stop in the nearby “Lucky” market and get to work. I’ve also got to cook a birthday dinner tomorrow night for my stepmother so I do some shopping while I’m there. I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear about the correlation.
We arrive at Phong Dinh Restaurant in Rosemead and are excited from the moment we walk in the door. The menu has alligator fillet, snake porridge, geoduck three ways (sashimi, fried and porridge), ostrich and kangaroo. But we’ve come here for one thing and one thing only. Ca dut lo hau giang—the house special baked whole catfish. I sip on a salted plum in club soda and Ultimate Manilow opts for the squeezed lime in club soda. Both are delicious. The accoutrement starts to arrive. Lettuce, herbs, vermicelli, dipping sauce, cucumbers, lightly pickled carrots, chili paste, a bowl of water and the hard round rice paper discs. Then the thing of beauty.
A massive, crispy, wonderful whole baked catfish arrives at our table, surrounded by orange slices, topped with chopped nuts and withstanding a serrated knife stuck proudly in its back. Our awesomely helpful server then goes out of his way to show us exactly how we’re meant to eat it. You dip the rice paper in the water, rotating it around to moisten the whole thing, then add in everything else to your taste, roll it up and dip it in the sauce. Once again the Vietnamese custom of modifying the food to your own exact specifications comes into play. It’s heaven. The fish is a textural wonderland all by itself, but with all the other components it becomes a remarkably light, flavorful and bright meal. Smiles all around. Ultimate Manilow says proudly: “Life comes down to pickles and animals. Acid, crunch, sweet, earth, chew.” It’s very hard to disagree. We decide we need to flag down our guy and ask for water, but he’s already sidling up to us with two tall glasses of it. Staring down at our decimated catfish carcass, it’s pretty clear that we couldn’t be more content.
Should I feel at all guilty for taking in so much pleasure from a culture who not long ago my father’s generation was completely ravaging? Is there a correlation between the Vietnam War and a bowl of Pho in the San Gabriel Valley? They certainly aren’t unrelated. But I’m not going to hate myself or my country every time I want a perfectly baked whole catfish. Food is the great equalizer. The thing that brings people together, even if its just some of us, even just sometimes. Hopefully one day Vietnam will be a word that brings out good thoughts in the minds of United States of Americans. A word that will mean things to people individually and can be catered to our own tastes and pleasures. If it can happen, if it’s at all possible, the great people at Pho Minh and Phong Dinh are certainly on the right track.
9646 E. Garvey Ave.
South El Monte, CA 91733
Food Breakdown: 4 bowls of pho, 5 non-alcoholic beverages
Distance From My House: 22.2 miles
Phong Dinh Restaurant
2643 San Gabriel Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
Food Breakdown: 1 enormous entree, 2 non-alcoholic beverages
Distance From My House: 20.9 miles