Monday, August 31, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Vietnamese in the North

Ethnic food is something I've mentioned I miss about New Orleans. So yesterday, over my extremely active weekend, Boy, my baby sister, and I went out west in search of both furniture and things that were delicious.

Wanting to furnish our new home (...yes, I know it's jumping the gun to hunt for furniture before we even have a closing date on the house) in the commercial/industrial minimalist modern style, there aren't a lot of showrooms in Long Island that are conducive to this task. So off we went to the CB2, Crate & Barrel, and West Elm in the city!

Sunday seemed the perfect day for such an activity. Rather than taking the train from Ronkonkoma, I opted to drive out to Flushing, Queens (the new authentic Chinatown) where parking is free (but only on Sundays) and most points in Manhattan are an easy subway's ride away. The reasoning for this decision also goes beyond that -- Boy was excited, as always, at the prospect of dim sum, or yum cha, and it seemed as good a way to start the day as any.

Dong Yi Feng
(I think) was good as usual, the pineapple buns warm and crusty. Even better (and cheaper) is the place up the block on Prince Street, but that's been closed for the past three dining attempts, so we've given up on it.

I'm going to end my story of dim sum right here, since I'm sure you've heard enough about bamboo steamers and 5-bite dumplings, and head on to the other gastronomic highlight of the day -- Vietnamese food.

It was to our greatest disappointment when we arrived in Long Island's hot, balmy summers to find that we couldn't easily refresh ourselves with a tasty, light, sweet, and warm vermicelli rice noodle bowl. Similar to a salad, with cooked but cooled noodles over a bed of shredded Romaine lettuce and fresh bean sprouts/mung beans, topped with crushed peanuts, meat of choice, and sweet fish sauce "dressing," this rich and flavorful dish manages a refreshing crispness that is surprising for the depth of flavor and complexity of tastes. It's hot but it's cold; it's light but filling; it's a superb study in contrasts that work together perfectly.

Bun, or said vermicelli noodle bowls, were my sticky weather go-to, since salads don't fill me up (I was raised on hot foods, so all cold foods are just "snacks" and not meals) and hot, hot meals are just too heavy during this season.

Anyway, yeah -- according to Google, the closest Viet joint was all the way in -- you guessed it -- Flushing.

So after our jaunts about in Manhattan, we headed back to the car and delicious Vietnamese bun in a bowl. We figured we'd head down Main Street, and a few wrong turns later and wandering in circles due to sudden changes in direction and opinion, found ourselves facing two Vietnamese restaurants -- Pho Hoang and Pho Bang.

I was more drawn to the roast meats dripping into metal trays hanging in the window of Pho Hoang, but Boy had peeked into the window at Pho Bang and noted that it was far more packed out than the place with the barbequed animals. Wanting my little sister's first experience with the delectability that is Vietnamese cuisine to be a good one, we went for the obviously tried-and-true, the one filled with people speaking a tongue I didn't understand. Pho Bang it was!

After a very brief wait and fast and fancy footwork through the crowded dining room, we were seated in the very, very back, in the left-hand corner. The smell of chargrilled meat and sugar-cane infused fish sauce pervaded the air -- mmm; familiarity!

We ignored the small cloud of gnats that lazily hovered over us, reminding ourselves that holes in the walls that were a crowded, a little sticky, and of questionable cleanliness often had some of the most flavorful food. The steaming bowls of hot pho that floated past us and big leafy greens made us feel a lot better about the buzzing pests, as did the extremely reasonable prices. I was pleased to be able to order my usual, the lemongrass beef with egg rolls, for under $8. Woohoo, right? I thought so.

I took the waiting time to go wash my hands in a bathroom that wasn't necessarily filthy but pretty standard for an older place in Flushing, and peeked under the hanging vertical blind panels (not full-length -- they were as big as the top section of a Dutch door for a similar effect) at the kitchen. Commercial, generic Wendy's tiles on the floor, a bunch of feet, and a lot of stainless steel legs was the most I could see, and the floor was reasonably clean. Hoorah.

Service was hard to judge. Our waiter was a sweet little old man in owlish spectacles, and one of the guys got up from his own dinner at a table to refill our water glasses, which was really nice, but two of the waiters blatantly avoided eye contact and several loud, "Excuse me! Sir?"s.

The food was great, though. All the necessary and familiar condiments were there, from Hoisin sauce in a squirt bottle to house sweet chili paste to Sriracha sauce. It was all the implements you could use, soup spoons, little dishes, chopsticks, and napkins all a free-for-all, which is a refreshing change from Chinese restaurant policies, where you got one napkin and considered yourself lucky for it.

Anyway, back to the bowl. I realized after the fact that I did bring my camera, but it was too late, and the accompanying picture is by a dude from Yelp! (as much as I don't support that site ...). However, the bun eaten by a "Jared C." is pretty darn close to what I had, but I have to say, Vietnamese in New York is definitely different than that in New Orleans.

The summer rolls looked about the same, plump shrimp, rice vermicelli, and cilantro rolled tightly into translucent rice paper wrappers. The only remarkable difference was a thick, raw lemongrass "handle" sticking out of it. Meh, whatever.

At first glance, the vermicelli bowls looked the same, too ... but they weren't.

Instead of thin-sliced meat, they were cubes of beef, delightfully surface-charred and bursting with flavor. Tender enough to bite into, they were well-seasoned and delicious. Unfortunately, while favorites like Pho Tau Bay offer a nice pile of meat, Pho Bang only gave about five chunks of meat. Five! Have you ever?

The fried spring rolls were also the same but different. Deep fried and greasy, as they usually are, they were filled with seasoned ground pork, carrots, and whatever other mystery goodness goes in them. However, rather than the thin, flaky spring roll crust I'm more accustomed to, they were wrapped in a doughier, thicker wrapper, whose uneven thickness smacks of "house-made." Always a plus, even if it's not necessarily what I'd expected. Another upside was there was a hell of a LOT of egg rolls in my bowl.

Minuses? No dried shallots! I LOVE dried shallots and had been talking them up! And of course, the quantity of meat.

Pluses were that the sweet fish sauce dressing was delectable. The noodles were a nice lukewarm, room temperature which is an ideal layer between the hot meat and egg roll topping and the cold veggie base. The portions were average, and the peanuts on top were sprinkled by a generous hand. But the last and final plus? It was Vietnamese food, and scratched that itch that's been festering since I left the muddy banks of the Mississippi.

Ohhhhh, yeahhhhhh.

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