History in the Making
One of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the country, Dac Hoa, is in Rochester, New York. It's a small, Barton Fink-ish place, with a perpetual pall of dishwater gray light, rickety tables and peeling everything in a borderline-creepy neighborhood. Still, most people who eat there have no idea how good they've got it. Those who know Vietnamese food -- who go questing after it, sparing no expense and risking much for summer rolls and fish sauce and bo cau nuong -- head for this place like Mecca, but the neighbors are just there for dinner. Stripped and oven-browned ducks hang near the register (heads still attached, because the brain and tongue are delicacies that only the ignorant let go to waste); hotel pans in the hot table hold strange, murky stews that aren't on the menu. If you're a regular, the ladies behind the counter will sometimes pick through those pans, slipping a warm, greasy, crisp-skinned duck leg or a link of Franco-Viet boudin noir sausage dripping with black-bean-cumin sauce into your takeout order. There's nothing calculating about this: It's just pride, a "look what we can do" nod from a bunch of tiny grandmothers who aren't satisfied until you've tasted a little bit of everything.
There's another great Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque, of all places, where the large Vietnamese community gets play in the popular consciousness more for its after-market car shops and baby-doll hookers working Central Avenue than for its cuisine. This place is even smaller than Dac Hoa. It's just a shack -- a few cheap tables, a long counter, short strings of Vietnamese writing carefully printed on bright construction paper like alien haiku and tacked up everywhere. You order by pointing to a piece of paper, and about half the time, the woman behind the counter will size you up and tell the kitchen to make you something entirely different from what you expected -- but exactly what you wanted all along. Then you eat, grateful for the native guide to a cuisine that will never be familiar, no matter how often you return to the trough. Still, the banh xeo rice-flour crepes-cum-fajitas are the freshest, most powerfully raw and delicious things you can imagine, and the piles of thit lui (skewered, grilled pork with rice, lettuce rolls and peanut sauce) are amazing. This restaurant doesn't even have a name that I can remember, just a description that no one can forget: It's the Vietnamese place attached to the drive-thru emissions-testing station.
In Boulder, there's a third great Vietnamese restaurant. This one is bigger than Chez Carbon Monoxide, more crowded than Dac Hoa and a little fancier, too, with tablecloths and linen napkins and water glasses with bobbing slices of lemon. Chez Thuy, which has occupied this stand-alone strip-mall space since 1993, is a history lesson told in food, a casually shabby clearinghouse of a thousand spices with menus as thick as a world atlas bound in fraying purple-red canvas.
Of all the colonial cuisines -- those honest, if not happy, culinary fusions that have at their core some historical precedent, like Dutch-Goa Indian or Caribbean-Brit or Frog-Moroccan -- Vietnamese is my favorite. This is partly because of my training as a chef (which was colonial French, at the hands of a succession of burned-out masters) and partly because my tastes in food, like some people's tastes in music, run toward the complicated-made-simple school of improvised traditionalism. I love a cook who, like a jazz piano man plonking out offbeat ragtime riffs on old standards, can take a thing (straight French moules et vin blanc, say), turn it on its ear with lemongrass, coconut milk and chiles (Chez Thuy's hao sa ot), yet show enough restraint that the core of the original dish remains.
But mostly, I favor Vietnamese cooking because it exists best under stress, under tensions of space (like Chateau Tailpipe) or trade (like Dac Hoa) or, in the case of Chez Thuy, history.
What stands today as the cuisine of Vietnam is the historical record of a murderous, ill-fated yet oddly fortuitous collision of cultures. When the French first came to Indochina, they did so with guns, funny hats and an idea of colonial law absolutely antithetical to the Southeast Asian way of life. As a result, decades of war -- both overt and covert -- followed their first steps into Vietnam, eventually drawing a half-dozen countries into the muck and mire. It was awful; how could it be anything else? But it was also one of those strange periods in history where complementary vectors of food and politics cross, because the French, being French, brought their chef's knives along with their trench knives, which changed Vietnamese cuisine forever.
These were two competing cultures that, above and beyond their ideological differences, had a shared love of food. The French (and later the British, the Aussies and the Americans) lost on the battlefield but reached an almost immediate, nearly pure détente in the kitchen. The Vietnamese took to French haute cuisine, fusing it forever and for always with their own already highly developed culinary tradition -- and then even taught the Frenchies a thing or two in the galley, which no other country has ever been able to do. Would that the entire mess could have been solved with one massive Iron Chef-style battle rather than thirty years of the more conventional guns-and-bombs variety, but the outcome would have been the same: North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh was a trained chef, after all, and word is Ho could cook.
Chez Thuy's menu reflects this mingling of the French and Vietnamese obsessions with dining. Relaxing deep in one of the comfortable, broken-in purple booths along the windows, I eat fat French escargot flash-sautéed in white wine and lemongrass, turned spicy-sweet and unmistakably Asian by the coconut- milk-thickened sauce, the spikes of green chiles and long streamers of onion; then big, excellent dry-tofu spring rolls with rice noodles, lettuce and cilantro folded into an envelope of four-ply rice paper and dipped in a satay peanut sauce. When my server isn't looking, I split both rolls open with my thumbnail and pull out the cilantro -- too overpowering and not stemmed, which is unfortunate.
I chase them with a quivering plate of soft, sweet, perfect crème caramel, which is listed on the menu as flan -- which is always listed on the menus of Vietnamese restaurants as flan, even though the dish is purely French and purely crème caramel and only flan once you cross south of the border.
I finish just ahead of the serious dinner rush, as customers of every conceivable demographic start stacking up in the doorway and the narrow alley between the bar and the dining floor. As busy as Chez Thuy is, the dining room is always a happy room, packed to capacity but tended by a small army of waiters and busers and water ninjas (who arrive silently, out of nowhere, to refresh my glass every time I take a sip), all moving in a concentrated, well-practiced ballet of service. There must be a huge kitchen in the back, staffed by innumerable cooks. With crowds this big and a menu this large, the only possible way to survive is through overwhelming culinary force. And even then, with so many hands in the soup, consistency could suffer.
For more than a decade, though, Chez Thuy's dishes have come out like Xerox copies, each one exactly like the one the day before, the one that will come tomorrow. That's pride showing. In young fusion cuisines, the constant shifting and reordering and plate-to-plate differences betray the timidity and lack of confidence inherent in them. But Chez Thuy takes pride in the history it brings to every plate and every table, in the kitchen knowing that the grilled da nuong sa lamb chops marinated in wine and five-spice powder were perfect yesterday and need not the slightest change or fresh inspiration to be any more perfect than they are today. The pork bird's nest (xao to chim thit) with garlic and lemongrass, a soft bed of rice noodles and a sweet, dark sauce almost like a bordelaise is the same on Saturday night as it will be at Tuesday's lunch, because that way is the right way, the best way.
I come in for dinner on a Sunday and am presented with the best soft-shell crabs of my life, the best of a hundred versions I've tried to date. They've been deep-fried whole, and the beautiful golden batter is crisp out of the oil and just a little spicy, the shells inside chewy, yielding and full of juicy meat. The accompanying nuoc mam fish sauce is bright as acetylene, so sharp that a sniff of it is dizzying, like a toot of model-airplane glue. I tear the crabs apart with my hands, hot oil searing my fingertips, folding legs and claws up in damp lettuce leaves with rice noodles and mint, then stripping meat out of their fat little bodies with my teeth. These crabs died for my dinner -- and probably not too long ago. Enjoying them with my whole heart is the least I can do.
I run through an order of frog legs the same way, devouring them, leaving nothing but bones. They're gamey like dark-meat turkey, small as chicken wings, but skinny and poached in red wine and ginger. Then comes a single little quail -- opened in the French style, split down the back and across the breast; stuffed with shredded crab, sweet rock shrimp, rice noodles, twists of black mushroom and more spices than I could taste with two tongues and nothing but time -- on a decadent, overwhelming plate piled with more noodles, steamed vegetables and a honey-sweet sesame hoisin that's too bluntly simple, too Applebee's Extreme Quail Poppers for my taste, but, luckily, easy to ignore. (A redundant honey sweetness runs through many Chez Thuy dishes -- honey chicken with shrimp, honey chicken stuffed with shrimp and pork, honey-glazed puffed vermicelli noodles.) I start out polite, dissecting the bird with fork and knife poised like an etiquette-school diagram, drawing on my French training to separate tiny legs from tiny body and breast from bone with tidy precision, but soon give up and dig in with chopsticks and fingers, sucking tiny bones clean, finishing whole quarters of dry but deeply spiced and smoky breast meat in single bites.
The menu goes on forever and a day with so little repetition beyond the use of honey and lemongrass that I can't imagine how any kitchen could keep enough stock in its pantry. Frogs next to the snails, below the quails, beside the game hens, on the shelf opposite the hanging ducks, next to the whole squid and baskets of mussels, near the grape leaves, above the halibut, below the butterfish... In one bowl of soup (the hu tieu mi), I count no fewer than four kinds of meat and two kinds of noodles, as well as sticky rice that I added myself, lime juice, green chiles, three kinds of whole herbs, several varieties of vegetables, chicken stock, nuoc mam and endless spices. The kitchen offers seven traditional Vietnamese hot pots, eight salads, mussels three ways (one Viet-French, one purely Vietnamese), escargot two ways (both of which would make Escoffier spin in his grave) and more noodle preparations than I care to count.
Like history, Chez Thuy's menu has no real beginning or end, but rather exists as a series of events, flavors linked through time and stress and pressure. Every meal here can be a lesson on how cultures grow and change through war and conquest and defeat, every trip through the bottomless depths of its dishes a display of the pride and balance inherent in this eminently adaptable, perfectly wedded colonial cuisine.
But even better, a meal here can just be dinner, absent politics, absent history, regardless of all that has come to shape the food at Chez Thuy. Visit a hundred times, and the thrill of discovery never grows old.
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