Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mo' Than Pho

In every ethnicity, there is the one gateway dish that gets you completely hooked to the cuisine; the one singular specialty that is just so damn good that it compels you to come back time after time just to order what--to your shame in revealing your boring, unadventurous side--becomes fast known as "the usual."

In Vietnamese cuisine, that gateway drug is pho, a big, wide bowl resembling a medium mixing bowl, filled with aromatic broth, roasted meat or fresh seafood, crisp vegetables, fragrant herbs, and a fabulous nest of noodles sitting at the very bottom. The broth is absolutely delicious, a steaming, golden clear liquid with little oil bubbles creating a light film with high sheen over the surface. Typically made from a combination of simmered beef and chicken bones, charred onion, native spices, and plenty of flavor enhancer MSG, there's an incredible complexity to the well-blended flavor that you just don't expect from something considered so common. Even to those with a well-developed and refined palate, it's challenging to individualize each thing you're tasting in this exotic blend.

(Photau borrowed from food blogger TheGrandInternational.com, who also has a great
recipe posted for Vietnamese pho -- click on the picture to get right to it!)


The noodles are the second main component of this popular soup, traditionally sheets of fresh or loops of dried rice noodles. Soft, slippery, and slightly chewy on first bite, these plain noodles border on compared to the sweet shallot and garlic infused broth. Wonton noodles are my personal favorite, making the pho more closely resemble the soups of Chinatown, New York. Thin strands of firm, yellow noodles with a yolkier and richer flavor than is ever available in European or American egg noodles, these have a great bite and more depth of taste than the neutral rice noodles, which in my opinion, goes better with the show-stopping broth, which just overshadows the traditional noodles.

Topped with green onions/scallions, cilantro, Thai basil, dried garlic and/or shallots, and Romaine lettuce or Napa cabbage slowly absorbing moisture at with the noodles at the bowl's bottom, there's a lot going on here. Lime, jalapenos, and bean sprouts are typically served on the side for added refreshment or spice, whatever your pleasure.

Sounds delicious, right?

Well, it most definitely is ... but it's time to break out of your Vietnamese comfort zone and I guarantee you'll be glad you did.

My rave of the day is about different types of bun, or Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodle bowls. (I know I'm venturing into territory where there may be some inaccuracy due to things getting lost in translation, and for that, I apologize.) Essentially a big bowl of noodle salad, this authentic dish is considerably lighter than pho and just as delicious ... just in a different way. Sweet and slightly tangy where pho is straight up savory, it's still equally complex and layered with exotic, heavy flavor. Vermicelli noodle bowls have more crisp vegetable components, the shredded (versus whole-leaf of pho) lettuce and cold bean sprouts/mung beans still exhibiting that watery crunch that's just so refreshing in contrast to everything else that's going on in your mouth. Cool or room-temperature, these thin rice noodles have a completely different mouthfeel than your usual broad, flat noodles. Round all the way through, a tad softer than al dente, and retaining more of that rice flavor than its slicker cousin, it forms a great foundation for the heaping mounds of stuff piled on top.

(Photo borrowed from NaokoMoore.com)

The name of the specific type of dish (other than just bun) depends on what you put on top of its noodle base. You get to choose the type(s) of meat--juicy, scented lemongrass beef; sweet chargrilled chicken, fatty sweet pork, or plump shrimp; Chinese style red roasted pork; or crispy mini egg rolls filled with good stuff like pork, carrots, cellophane/bean thread noodles.

The usual suspects that you'll find on top of this hot mess is fresh sprigs of cilantro, coarsely crushed peanuts, fried garlic and shallots, and occasionally onions, crisp cucumbers, and of course, the bean sprouts and shredded lettuce. And if all that wasn't hard enough to taste in your mind's (eye? ... mouth?), you're expected to top it all off with a "dressing" of cane sugar and lime-sweetened fish sauce (which, by the way, is not fishy at all when used as a dressing, due to the blend of additive substances like the sugar) mixed with some of that famous Sriracha sauce. Stir that together in a little cup, pour, and mix and you've got yourself the makings of a meal that will blow your senses clean away on pure overload.

What does it taste like?

Imagine this: sweet, a little salty, with a bit of a smoky, fried element added from the shallots and garlic. Cold and refreshing in one bite, and heavy, meaty, and nutty in the next. A hint of heat, or more if you're not afraid of the chili paste or Sriracha, toned down by the medium density of the vermicelli rice noodles and the cool cucumbers, lettuce, mung beans, and cilantro.

Still can't put a finger on it? I guess you better try it yourself, since the essence of these noodle bowls is almost beyond words.
  • Pho Tau Bay: (Love this place!) 113 Westbank Expressway, #C, Westbank in Gretna, LA; (504) 368-9846
  • Nine Roses/Hoa Hong 9: (Go for the pho here.) 1100 Stephen Street, Westbank in Gretna, LA; (504) 366-7665
  • Dong Phuong: 14207 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans (East), LA; (504) 254-0296
  • August Moon: 3635 Prytania Street, Garden District of New Orleans, LA; (504) 899-5129
  • Ba Mien Restaurant: 13235 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans (East), LA; (504) 255-0500
  • Pho Bang Restaurant: 14367 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans (East), LA; (504) 254-3929
  • Jazmine Cafe: 314 South Carrollton Avenue, Uptown New Orleans, LA; (504) 866-9301

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