Gia Hoi: As Pink As Your Palate

Pink. Whether you visit Gia Hoi during the morning or at night, you'll be bathed in pink. Neon pink. Pink that comes from tubes that ring the walls of the oddly shaped restaurant (occupying the corner unit of a strip mall, it resembles three die fused together). When you look down at your plate, a buzzing warmth envelops whatever you may have ordered, with only a swatch of neon green on the window to cool you down.

It's an apt metaphor for the dive because you'll be sweating throughout your stay here. The air conditioning is one giant fan that blasts one way, across the length. The fine cha gio comes out of the fryer, spitting oil and glossy shards upon the table. The atmosphere remains consistently swamplike, as almost everyone will be slurping and digging through at least one steaming bowl of bún bò Hue, the pho of Central Vietnam except far more exciting. If pho is the ultimate Vietnamese comfort food, then bún bò Hue is that jigger of bourbon you swig from a flask during a funeral, all about spice and zing and a lemongrass blast in the broth. You'll be asked if you want it with all the fixings, and you do: a giant cube of congealed pig's blood, a huge trotter complete with fat, bone, tendons and jellied skin; fish cake and fish balls; and a broth that falls just to the safe side of the Geiger counter. And then come the sides: a Mekong Delta of herbs that includes everything from banana blossoms to rau ram, plus a canister of pickled garlic slivers. It's a rude soup, but it's a beautiful one, and Gia Hoi's bowl is one of the best in Little Saigon.

If you want something prim and proper? Tough. Gia Hoi is one of the area's relatively few restaurants that specialize in the cuisine of Central Vietnam. The only dishes you might recognize are the spring and egg rolls—for everything else, you're going to need a Viet from Hue to guide you, from the bánh beo (small rice cakes topped with ground shrimp or cracklings) to bánh bot lot, shrimp dumplings made of tapioca flour that you scoop up with a sesame seed-studded cracker that makes a crawfish house seem as happening as an Applebee's. Tet's approaching, so make this coming Year of the Horse the year in which you finally learn to love Central Vietnamese grub. And get ready for the pink.


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