Everything at Canton Restaurant is hot in one way or another, literally or figuratively—and both in almost all cases. One of the dac biets (house specials) is an amazing whole whitefish presented sizzling on a cast-iron pan, infused with dill and galangal, and sautéed in so much turmeric that dust clouds waft from the plate and across the restaurant; given that most parties order this dish, the restaurant becomes almost misty with spice. The other is chao tom, shrimp paste shaped around sugar cane stalks, then deep-fried until the shrimp turns into a golden fluff and the sugar cane becomes even crunchier than before; each bite is fatty, sugary, while the freshness comes by wrapping the chao tom into a lettuce leaf, and adding in the jungle of astringent herbs that epitomizes Vietnamese cooking. The house peanut sauce, almost as creamy as bean soup, is presented boiling; all the cháos (porridges) are so hot that even after you vainly try to cool it off, doing it enough to stop steam from emanating from the spoonful, it'll still scald.
This is Vietnamese cooking for the serious eater, for those of you who aren't afraid of pig kidneys in your soup or gruff service at the counter. Canton is in what can be described as Little Saigon's Chinatown, strip malls off Westminster Avenue and Newland Street where Chinese characters are as plentiful as South Vietnamese flags. The soups, however, are straightforward Mekong (and do order the soups: there's a reason Canton's Vietnamese name translates to "House of Soup," and it's not because of its awesome vintage marquee on the restaurant's roof). And the strangest part of this self-deemed potage palace is that Little Saigon loves it best for the cháo, which isn't technically a soup. The best one is their cháo cá, a tureen of rice and fish chunks spiked in fish oil, presented alongside a plate of ginger and slices of red snapper. The cháo is initially presented so hot that you should wait a good 10 minutes, constantly stirring and blowing, lest the red snapper overcook upon dunking. Once the porridge settles, however, it's magnificent. There's just no American equivalent to this Asian comfort food: comforting yet brassy, bold yet nuanced, oily yet sparse. The safe eater will enjoy the fish version, along with the beef. Pig offal? Perfect for Mexis and Viets alike.
The décor doesn't seem to have changed since its 1987 opening—wooden tables, floor, and walls, but nicely kept, with the chubby likeness of Buddha, no doubt stuffed on Canton's cháo and fish over the decades. Good Buddha!
This review appeared in print as "All Like It Hot."
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