I was standing in line at the grocery store when two women ahead of me started discussing where to take their families for dinner that night. "I'm so sick of Chinese," said the first. "Have you tried Vietnamese?" The second woman looked at her companion as though she'd just asked her to stuff live gerbils in her ear. "No way," she replied. "God knows what kind of weird stuff they eat."
It's hard to believe there are still people out there who think there's something mysterious about Vietnamese food. In fact, Vietnam has one of the most limited culinary repertoires going. Like the cuisines of Laos and Thailand, Vietnamese cooking relies almost exclusively on fresh vegetables and herbs, along with chicken, pork, beef and seafood. Sure, the Vietnamese are big on squid, but so are the Italians and Greeks (although those nationalities don't dry the flesh and toast it in an oven until the whole house smells like Lake Erie). But with the exception of a few unusual sausages--frankly, I'm more frightened of hot dogs--there just aren't very many surprises in Vietnamese cooking.
Nor is there much variety. Granted, a friend who recently returned from a month-long visit to Vietnam still raves about a sea bass stuffed with ground pork, onions, garlic and tree ears (those are mushrooms, you weird-stuff worriers), but that's a holiday or special-occasion meal over there. Most of the foods served at restaurants here are the same ones that Vietnamese families eat daily in their homes. There's one curious exception to this rule, however: bo 7 mon, or seven courses of beef, which has a spot on the menu at most local Vietnamese eateries--the price always seems to be $12.95, although none list the dish's name the same way--and is even claimed as a specialty at some. This elaborate trotting-out of seven differently prepared beef dishes began many decades ago when Vietnam enjoyed more prosperous times, and it continues to be available at hotels there. The only thing weird about this offering, though, is that beef isn't the meat of choice for most Vietnamese.
I've eaten in every Vietnamese eatery this city has to offer, and I have yet to come across any truly weird stuff. But I have had some excellent meals, particularly at Saigon Palace. The food at this six-year-old establishment is as good as Vietnamese gets, and the place deservedly attracts a crowd that would have most LoDo joints weeping with envy. The Palace looks like a diner on the outside, but inside it looks--and feels--like the home of an elderly aunt. The dining room is downright charming, with Vietnamese plates displayed in hutches, red velvet chairs and a split-level design that gives diners a sense of privacy. And other touches, such as the noodle soup coming in enormous clear glass bowls instead of the usual cheap patterned ones, reinforce the impression of a very special meal.
The pomp and circumstance of the Palace's seven courses of beef, here called dac biet bo 7 mon ($12.95 per person), certainly added to the fun. The first course was a traditional beef fondue that bore no resemblance to that gloppy-cheese-sauce-and-stale-bread American version. This fondue was a nearly clear broth of water and vinegar flavored with garlic, sugar and nuoc mam, the fish sauce that's a staple of Vietnamese cookery. The waitress brought out the flame-heated fondue pot along with a plate of thinly sliced sirloin, then dropped the meat in the broth to cook for a few minutes; bowls of nuoc cham, the chile-enhanced condiment made from nuoc mam, and a thin paste of ultra-salty shrimp sauce mixed with chiles and lemon juice were provided for dipping. The fondue was followed in rather rapid succession by grilled beef, roasted beef, beef with noodles in a beef broth, cold beef, beef stir-fried with vegetables in a spicy sauce and, finally, chopped beef with crisply fried noodles and peanuts. The whole deal was wonderful, but it filled our recommended daily allowance of cow products for two weeks.
We skipped the beef when we returned for lunch. Both the shrimp- and pork-filled spring rolls ($3) and vegetable-stuffed egg rolls ($4.95) were stellar, bursting with fresh ingredients. The egg rolls, in particular, showed off the kitchen's good technique: Plenty of sugar water had been used to coat the rice wrappers before frying, which made for a beautiful golden color and a nice sweetness. Our entrees also evinced excellent preparation. For the bun ga nuong ($3.95), chicken had been marinated in a liquid made from five-spice powder (the Chinese version that contains star anise, cassia bark, Szechuan peppercorns, fennel and cloves), which gave the tender bird a sweet and spicy coating when it was grilled in strips. The chicken was accompanied by rice noodles, lettuce, cucumbers and bean sprouts--an unbelievable amount of food for the price. A pile of pork cooked the same way came with the chef's special platter ($16.95 for two), along with two beautifully fried soft-shell crabs in a bubbly batter and more egg rolls. An order of soft-fried egg noodles with quick-steamed vegetables ($4.95) rounded out the meal.
We found no weird stuff--but no particularly wonderful stuff, either--at Saigon Inn. After twelve years in Arvada, the Inn moved in December to what had briefly been the home of another Vietnamese place, Co-Do, whose owners operate the market next door. The Inn kept many of Co-Do's elaborate decorations, including the amazing 3-D wall treatments that depict the bridge over the Perfume River in Hue. The menu is new, though: a seemingly endless list of dishes based on the Inn's featured meats, along with a roster of chef's specialties that includes the seven courses of beef, here called thit bo 7 mon ($12.95 per person). This version included an interesting beef salad with raw vegetables and a piece of meat that had been rubbed with a lime leaf, which gave it a certain acidic quality.
We also tried the Inn's spring rolls ($2.95), which were bland but helped along by the well-melded nuoc cham, and egg rolls ($4.95), which were standard. Much better was the tom boc thit ($8.95), a sort of shrimp-sausage egg roll created by stuffing shrimp with a seasoned mixture of pork and more shrimp, then wrapping the crustacean in rice paper and deep-frying it. The result was as "delicious" as its menu description claimed. Also noteworthy was the mi xao don chay ($6.95), a vegetarian entree that included straw mushrooms, baby corn, red peppers and crispy noodles (but none of the tofu promised on the menu) simmered in a concentrated broth enhanced by lemongrass.
The ginger-strong sauce of the ga kho gung ($7.95) was fine; unfortunately, the tasteless chicken seemed to have been cooked separately, and the fowl was so dry that even smashing it in the sauce didn't soften the impression that we were chewing pieces of a terrycloth towel. But the kitchen really failed the taste test with its pho dac biet ($4.95). Pho is one of the simplest yet most complex dishes in Vietnamese cooking. The key to a good pho lies in the variety and quality of the ingredients; the Inn's take offered little more than beef and rice noodles with a few scallions, carrots and a sprig or two of cilantro in a broth that should have been a pungent stock made stronger by the beef but instead was watery and thinly flavored.
Some countries' cuisines have a host of fancy sauces on the back burner that can cover up mistakes. Vietnamese food doesn't, which means the cooking has to stand on its own.
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But really, there's nothing weird about that.
Saigon Palace, 3495 South Broadway, Englewood, 789-3500. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Saigon Inn, 781 South Federal Boulevard, 922-2930. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.