Bambi: He's What's for Dinner
A taste of the exotic at Quan Minh Ky
If you've flipped through magazines or TV commercials recently, you've seen Andrew Zimmern. He's the doughy bald man with a geeky grin featured in a series of ads for a travel show called Bizarre Foods. One spot has him smashing the glass of a malfunctioning vending machine to get at some fish heads. In a print ad, he waits for a meal of tarantula to heat up in a microwave. But that's nothing compared to what he actually eats on his program. In Iceland, he sampled rotted shark; in Taiwan, rooster testicles.
The premise isn't new. Anthony Bourdain, his Travel Channel cohort, had a similar show on the network, as well as one before that called A Cook's Tour, in which he famously ate the still-beating heart of a cobra. Ever seen the monkey-brain scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Like these shows, that film sequence exploits our culinary xenophobia. As viewers, we gag and say, "eww"—yet we're riveted.
But while Spielberg exaggerated the grotesque simply to repulse, programs such as Zimmern's and Bourdain's No Reservations aim to educate. Every episode is narrated with respectful commentary about the customs and traditions of the culture they profile. Though with Zimmern, the underlying hook of the show remains clear: Foreigners eat some really funky stuff.
On a recent trip to Quan Minh Ky—a restaurant in Little Saigon that features deer, alligator, goat, frogs and wild boar—I got to thinking about Bizarre Foods and whether it opens people's minds about the exotic, or shuts it even tighter.
How would the Extra Value Meal crowd react upon seeing zoo animals on a menu? Would they want to know that goat meat tastes like lamb, and that frog legs are less greasy versions of chicken wings? Or would they declare them fodder fit only for cable TV hosts?
The conclusion I came to was that most people would not find themselves anywhere near the restaurant. But it wouldn't be Zimmern's fault. First, as with most Vietnamese places serving authentic fare, there's the language barrier. The servers here, though exceedingly friendly, speak virtually no English, turning even simple requests into a game of charades.
Then there's the pungent smell emanating from the hot pots, one of the restaurant's most popular items. During particularly cold nights, every table will have a vessel of soup gurgling over a portable stove, billowing steam and filling the small room with the thick odor of bamboo shoots. The a/c and your nostrils have no hope of recovering.
But once intrepid diners get over these minor hurdles, they stand to gain the thrill of trying something new. I experienced just that when I ordered the deer. My venison was prepared as luc lac, seasoned and cubed to bite-sized hunks, tossed in a hot wok to sear, then quickly plated over peppery greens, wilted onions and sliced tomatoes.
The first thing that came to mind as I picked up a browned morsel was, of course, guilt. I was about to eat Bambi. Cute, innocent, dewy-eyed Bambi. Though after the first bite, I found him tender, lean and so beefy he could be mistaken for filet mignon. Thumper would've been horrified at how much I enjoyed chewing on his buddy.
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For their signature dish of steak Napoleon, there was no doubt that filet mignon was the protein. A spoon could cut into it, and it melted on the palate like it was butter. Next to the steak were two sunny-side-up eggs, which can be flipped over on the sizzling cast-iron platter, if you prefer a harder yolk.
There are other items for the less adventurous. Fat clams on the half shell are broiled over coals and served with crushed peanuts and a wedge of lime. A crispy, deep-fried "Hanh" fish is presented upright, propped up on toothpicks. Egg noodles—topped with homemade wontons and meatballs—can be had dry or doused with hot broth.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. Follow in the footsteps of Bourdain and Zimmern, or just watch them have all the fun. But don't feel bad if you don't have the stomach.
Quan Minh Ky, 9471 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 108, Westminster, (714) 839-8734. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $12-$25, food only.