Ethnic Eating 101: Vietnamese, Part 2

Fried tofu stuffed with shrimp (đậu hũ ky)
Fried tofu stuffed with shrimp (đậu hũ ky)
taste-buzz @ CC BY 2.0

Welcome back to Ethnic Eating 101, the Vietnamese edition. While phở, chả giò and bánh mì are all delicious in their own right, they're among the most common foods that people think of when thinking about Vietnamese food. Over the next couple of weeks we'll delve a little deeper into foods that may be increasingly unfamiliar. Today's agenda: noodle salads, a banquet made entirely of beef and broken-rice plates (as opposed to broken rice-plates).

First, a few words (okay, two paragraphs) about how to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant:

For the most part, Vietnamese restaurants aren't known for their obsequious service. In most places, you'll be greeted, asked how many in your party, seated and given menus. Menus may or may not be well-translated (or, in some cases, translated at all) and servers may or may not speak English with any reasonable level of fluency. You will probably have to flag down your server if you need something, and it would be best to ask ahead of time on a food board (or in the comments here) about food allergies, since comprehensive lists of ingredients are rarer than hen's teeth. At the end of the meal in all but the obviously-fancy places, you'll need to go up to the cashier to get and pay the bill. Bills aren't normally brought to the table. Don't forget to leave a tip, either on the table or in the jar at the cashier.

At a sandwich shop or a bakery, you need to set aside your idea of an orderly queue. If the Russians have elevated queuing to an art form (I once stood behind a woman on a line who informed me that thirteen people were behind her, all out getting a hot drink or other purchases), the Vietnamese are their foils and have zero use for a line. Being tall (and obviously non-Asian) helps, because you stand out, but watch out for the little old ladies with the sharpened tips on their parasols pointed right at your kidneys. If you dawdle or appear to be indecisive, it's a stone-cold guarantee that people will push past you or simply shout their orders in the liquid tones of tiếng Việt from right behind you.

And now, on to the food:


Bún is the generic term for a host of salad-type dishes based on room-temperature rice vermicelli, crisp, shredded herbs and lettuce, and the hot meat topping of your choice. By far the most popular kind of bún is bún chả giò thịt nướng, or rice vermicelli salad with sliced spring rolls (remember last week?) and grilled pork. Other popular choices are bò nướng (grilled beef), nem nướng (meatballs) or, for something a little more unusual, đậu hũ ky (shrimp paste stuffed inside tofu and deep-fried). Bún is usually garnished with pickled vegetables and served with nước chấm, the tangy-sweet-garlicky-spicy fish sauce condiment that is the ketchup of Vietnam.

Ethnic Eating 101: Vietnamese, Part 2
geordino @ CC BY 2.0

A special kind of bún that bears mentioning is bún chả Hà Nội (Hanoi-style bún). This arrives deconstructed, with grilled pork and a grilled meatball swimming in a small bowl of thin, clear, papaya-based sauce, a plate of rice vermicelli, herbs, vegetables and lettuce. No nước chấm with this one, but you don't need it. You'll be given a small bowl into which you tear some greenery, pile some rice vermicelli, a piece of smoky meat with a splash of the sauce and maybe a little hit of "rooster" sauce.

Where to get it? Any phở shop will serve bún; sadly, the phở king known as Thanh Lịch doesn't deliver the same amazingness with its bun; try Phở 79 (9941 Hazard, Garden Grove), catercorner from Thanh Lịch, instead. For bún chả Hà Nội, the rendition served at Viễn Đông (14271 Brookhurst, Garden Grove) will bowl you over with its dark smokiness. A bowl of bún is anywhere from $5-$8. Bò 7 món

Bò 7 món literally means "seven courses of beef", which should give you an inkling of what this banquet-style feast is. This is a celebratory meal, because beef is more expensive in Vietnam than pork or fish. It's also one of the few meals in the Vietnamese repertoire that is served in separate courses, as opposed to all the dishes being served at once.

Ethnic Eating 101: Vietnamese, Part 2
goincase @ CC BY 2.0

As with many Vietnamese meals, a plate of herbs and garnishes will be put on the table, as well as rice paper (thinner than Korean dduk bo ssam), nước chấm and a small dish of mắm nêm, an unbelievably addictive mixture of fermented anchovies, smashed pineapple, sugar, garlic and chiles that sounds absolutely disgusting but just works perfectly with beef. (Think of it as sweeter bagna caôda, if that helps.) You use the rice paper to keep your hands from getting beefy and gross and the herbs and garnishes for textural variety and a little bit of flavor assistance.

Your first course will be a salad made of shredded vegetables (pickled and fresh) tossed with grilled beef and nước chấm, a little bit like Thai beef salad but not nearly as spicy.

Beef "fondue"
Beef "fondue"
vj_pdx @ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Second is a dead ringer for shabu shabu, raw slices of steak meant to be swished in a hot pot of broth. Cook the beef in the vinegary stock, then use the bowl of water to soften a piece of rice paper, roll up the beef and some herbs in the paper, dip it in one of the sauces, and eat it.

Third is grilled beef patties served with crunchy rice puffs, often with black sesame seeds mixed into it.

Fourth is nem (meatballs) wrapped in caul fat and grilled.

Bò lá lốt
Bò lá lốt
secretlondon @ CC BY-SA 2.0

Fifth is ground beef that is rolled up like dolmas in an herbal, peppery, ti-like leaf called lá lốt.

Sixth course varies: it can be pieces of beef that have been rolled around asparagus, Chinese broccoli or thick scallions and grilled, or it can be smoky beef sausages with paper-thin slices of ginger.

Lastly is rice porridge (cháo) with beef. It's considered normal to leave quite a lot of this uneaten, as it means the other six courses of better, more interesting food filled you up.

Where to get it? While Pagolac (14580 Brookhurst, Westminster) has held the love of the beef-enabled for a long time, many people prefer Thiên Ân Bò 7 Món (13518 Harbor, Garden Grove). Going rate for the meal is in the vicinity of $15. Cơm tấm

One of the prime examples of the cuisine of poverty becoming a delicacy is the dish known as cơm tấm. Cơm tấm literally means "broken rice" and is the shards, bits and bobs of rice sieved away during the sorting of first-quality rice. Originally the rice given to the peasants who worked the demesne of the rice plantations, it is now actually more expensive to buy than standard rice. Since it is, by definition, uneven in size, cơm tấm cooks to a range of donenesses, from quite soft to just barely cooked, and provides some textural interest in what would otherwise be a bog-standard bowl of rice.

Ethnic Eating 101: Vietnamese, Part 2
mmm-yoso @ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A plate of cơm tấm is garnished with your choice of toppings and comes with a bowl of pork broth, some sliced fresh cucumbers, some pickled vegetables and a bowl of whole, fresh Thai chiles. You'll be given a fork and spoon instead of chopsticks; eat Thai- and Filipino-style, using the fork to push food onto your spoon. Also, check your soup bowl: if you see a knuckle of meat in there, you are in luck; fish out the knuckle and eat the meat off it.

Available toppings--three or four will run you $5-$6 and seven or eight will run you $8-$10--include thịt nướng (grilled pork), bò nướng (grilled beef), bò đại hàn (Korean-style beef), lạp xưởng (sweet red Chinese sausage), sườn (grilled pork chop) or đậu hũ ky (deep-fried, shrimp paste-stuffed tofu). Most combinations will include bì, which is shredded pork and pork skin that has been cooked and then tossed with ground roasted rice powder. It lends a very dusky undertone to the dish and emphasizes the taste of the rice. My favorite topping, however, is chả: a slice of savory meatloaf containing ground pork, black mushrooms and egg, topped with a thin layer of concentrated tomato sauce, the Vietnamese answer to quiche.

You eat it by sprinkling a little bit of nước chấm on your food, then taking a small bite of chile and a bite of rice. The chile is optional, but it lends a necessary heat that will break up the monotony of a plate of rice. Use the soup to moisten your mouth (especially after eating bì, which tends to dry the mouth due to the roasted rice powder) and the vegetables to cut across the oiliness of the toppings (especially the lạp xưởng, which is delicious but greasy). If you order a glass of đá chanh (fresh limeade) or soda chanh (fresh lime soda), you'll find that it's too sweet to drink on its own but serves as a great douse for the chile fire.

Where to get it? One of these days we're going to have to do a Dueling Dishes segment on the two reigning queens of broken rice, Cơm Tấm Thuận Kiều (14282 Brookhurst, Garden Grove and 8940 Bolsa, Westminster) and Cơm Tấm Trần Quý Cấp (10522 McFadden, Garden Grove). Trần Quý Cấp is cleaner and has better đậu hũ ky; Thuận Kiều is my personal favorite and has superior chả, but you may end up sitting at a communal table.

Next week: Southeast Asian fajitas, the Black Hole of Caffeine and the is-it-East-is-it-West world of Vietnamese patisserie.

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