Phuong Restaurant's Viet Funk
Even in the messy world of Vietnamese dining—in which the gentlest noodle slurp unleashes a cascade of soup drippings; a bite into a bánh mì explodes with shards of crumbs; hands-on eating, folding, dipping for crawfish, egg rolls and bánh xéo and so many other dishes isn't optional, but mandatory—the genre of bánh hoi turns the most prim-and-proper eater into the equivalent of a schoolboy unleashed on a pizzeria after a Little League game. Bánh hoi is a bed of bún (vermicellin noodles) woven into an edible blanket that resembles cow tripe but is tasteless on its own. Vietnamese top these sheets with scallions, garlic, peanuts and your choice of meats; you stuff those ingredients into a lettuce leaf, decorate it with a jungle of herbs, drizzle on some sauces, then dunk the results into fish sauce. Your fingers become sticky, your shirt gets stained, and your breath reeks all day, but it's a palimpsest of flavors, of sour, sweet, grilled—all the charms of Vietnamese cuisine
The bánh hoi with charbroiled meatballs and shrimp paste is my favorite dish at Phuong Restaurant, an old-school dive in Little Saigon, and most of the tables of elders will get an order of this meal since it's one of the enclave's best renditions. But Phuong's most famous meal by far is the hu tieu My Tho, a soup of kitchen-sink proportions, not just in size, but also in idiom, as it is the specialty of its hometown. Hu tieu starts with a broth derived from seafood and pork stock; bobbing within are clear, chewy tapioca noodles, as well as a zoo of meats. Phuong's My Tho packs in shrimp, fish paste, barbecued pork, even hard-boiled quail eggs, and you can order the soup with the broth in the bowl or on the side, for optimal dunking. It's Bootsy Collins in a bowl, the funk of all the ingredients boiling into one another as you accentuate it with scoops of chili and hoisin sauce, plus pickled jalapeños and garlic to accentuate its zings. Even though I love the bánh hoi, and even though it also sells rice and bún dishes, Phuong's soups are necessary—a bit bizarre for a county accustomed to pho, but a necessary river to cross.
As for the rest of the restaurant? A time capsule: pink-hued tables, outdated chandeliers, a soundtrack filled with adult-contemporary schlock à la Celine Dion and other artists only fans of Paris By Night can truly appreciate, with basketball games on the flat-screen the only salvation. On a rainy night, Phuong's windows steam up—one of the most beautiful restaurant sights in Orange County. Then you walk in and get smacked in the senses—heaven off Westminster Avenue.
This column appeared in print as "Viet Funk."
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