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By Edwin Goei
I'm convinced that every Vietnamese dish ever conceived is represented in some form or another at Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon in Fountain Valley. If it contained recipes, the menu could serve as the Vietnamese version of Larousse Gastronomique; the thing reads like an epic, leaving no protein, starch, vegetable or prep method unturned. Its website says the kitchen produces 300 different dishes, but it seems as though there are more. To order just rice plates and stir-fried noodles would be too easy. How about vinegar fondue called nhung dam, or table grilled meats called nuong vi? You have a hankering for pho? The menu lists 32 kinds.
In the menu's narrative, you'll encounter a few characters from not only Animal Farm, but also The Jungle Book. The section on game meats lists alligator, wild boar, venison, goat and eel deep-fried, sautéed and curried. Not content to let a foodie trend pass by, Nhu Y even has a roster of Louisiana-style seafood boils, with corn and potatoes, as an answer to Boiling Crab and its clones. Desserts cover a dense page of their own; represented prominently is the subphylum of Vietnamese dessert called che, but there are also cherimoya, avocado and jackfruit ice creams, with the option of getting them blended into milkshakes.
Even before you see the menu, Nhu Y's absence of restraint will be evident. At the entrance, past the koi pond and the buzzing neon, you come face-to-face with the mounted deer head. In the dining room, what isn't decorated with various bric-a-brac is covered with fake ivy and Christmas lights. Through another door, a VIP banquet hall could double as a Liberace shrine, thanks to its explosion of glitter and white. Every night in this room, warbly, synthesizer-backed karaoke is sung at ear-piercing levels.
But even in the midst of all this, it is not difficult to know what to order. Nhu Y is acclaimed for three items: the oven-baked catfish, the seven courses of beef and the eight courses of fish. The catfish is to Vietnamese what the lechon pig is to Filipinos: a celebration food, an extravagant head-on specimen with maraschino cherries for eyes whose arrival on an oblong tray inspires the kind of awe a turkey commands at Thanksgiving. The fish comes in a range of sizes from a few inches long to a full-on river monster, all exhibiting a crisp mahogany skin and moist pulp of meat that is to be scooped up, adorned with herbs, wrapped in wetted rice paper, then dunked into an array of dipping sauces.
Restraint, if you could call it that, paradoxically comes when you ask for the seven courses of beef. Your waiter will actually inform you that one order is enough to feed two. He's right. Furthermore, for a meal that celebrates cattle consumption at every step, it's remarkably light. It begins with a shredded cabbage salad topped by bits of beef, pickled scallion bulbs and a fish-sauce-based dressing that zaps with a lemon-powered brightness; you use tapioca crackers as a scooping device. Then come spring rolls stuffed with sweet-broiled beef and noodles wrapped taut under translucent, latex-y rice paper.
Soon, more raw rice paper is supplied, along with a bowl of hot water in which to turn them pliant. A mountain of fragrant Vietnamese herbs called rau thom also arrives, containing so many exotic greens it would take a botanist an hour to categorize them. You wet the paper, deposit rice noodles and roll up whatever vegetable matter you care to include with one of three bite-sized beef morsels: roasted meatballs wrapped in caul fat gush juice, ground beef stogies bundled in a leaf called la lot that recalls nori, and a meat tube redolent of lemongrass. A cast-iron hot plate with more beef follows; this time, the protein is thinly sliced like Korean bulgogi and slowly sizzled to crispness with scallions, onions, cilantro and crushed peanuts. Finally, when you're just about ready to tap out, a soothing balm of minced beef porridge is served. The gruel settles into any belly room left unclaimed.
A separate trip is required to attempt the eight courses of fish, the restaurant's namesake meal. Since Nhu Y has trademarked the phrase "Ca 8 Mon," it appears this restaurant has the monopoly, especially because, to my knowledge, no other Little Saigon eatery offers it. The same rule applies here as it does for the beef course: If you've got two people, you need only ask for one order. With the exception of deep-fried, breaded spears of white fish and a crispy egg roll, almost all of the fish courses are a play-by-play recitation of the beef series. But the fish feast is a little more delicate, nuanced and subtle, which is more than you can say about anything else.
This review appeared in print as "Give a Man Eight Courses of Fish . . .
. . . And you know he's at Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon in Fountain Valley."