On a search for the best Asian restaurants along Federal Boulevard, the Far East Center is like the grand finale of the fireworks show. There may be one or two Chinese or mixed Asian joints north of Alameda, but the buildup has already happened over the past couple of blocks, and this is where everything goes off with a bang all at once: banh mi torpedoes, volleys of dim sum, whole roasted duck in red lacquered armor, fat pork buns, seafood platters, pho by the vat, market-priced lobster specials, boba smoothies, simmering hotpots, almond cookies, every possible cut of beef, pork, lamb, goat, quail, squid, jellyfish...and a moment's rest to sip a coffee and pay the bill before waddling back to the car from any of a half dozen or so Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries and delis that guard the fortress walls of this miniature citadel. And that doesn't even take into account the grocery stores and markets where you can stock up on favorite ingredients and cooking utensils in case you want to do it all over again in the comfort of your home kitchen. This is the territory that Viet's Restaurant occupies, wedged into a corner spot, but definitely not overlooked.
See also: Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine: Tamales on my mind Viet's looks exactly like every other moderately successful Vietnamese restaurant along Federal: tile floors from the Home Depot sale aisle; tables and chairs that might have been labeled "contemporary" at a furniture warehouse any time over the past twenty years; a jumble of red and gold knickknacks, bamboo plants and mismatched light fixtures. Even the menu starts with a familiar list of noodle soups, grilled meat plates with rice or noodles, and various rolls in raw or fried form. I chose stuffed chicken wings from that list of appetizers -- a dish I've seen on a few menus but not with the same frequency as shrimp spring rolls or even shrimp paste skewers. Those wings didn't last long as Amy and I clashed chopsticks, fighting for the best pieces: those with the perfect ratio of sweet and crackling skin, tender wing meat and sausage stuffing reminiscent of the pork flavors available at Gio Cha Cali, only more loosely packed and boldly seasoned.
Bone-in chicken wings are a bar-snack standard, not just because they're easy to prepare but because the bones add flavor and help keep the meat moist. But crumbled sausage laced with pork fat and seasoned with fish sauce makes up for any flavor and juice lost when the bones are removed before cooking. Viet's wings could veer toward French fussiness if they didn't have that tail-gate goodness that would be just as satisfying on a paper plate in a Midwestern football stadium parking lot.
Viet's -- like a few other top Vietnamese shops in town -- distinguishes itself further with its list of house specials. We opted for a goat hotpot and added a plate of pork ribs with pineapple, which was entirely too much food for two people -- as our waitress warned us. I'm always up for that kind of challenge, though, even if it means an extra-heavy take-home bag at the end of the night. The pork rib dish arrived first, giving us a chance to enjoy the subtle sweet-and-sour stir-fry and chewy pork (cooked to less tenderness than the American palate typically prefers) before the hot pot showed up demanding our full attention. The hot pot was the kind of dish I hope for every time I walk into a Vietnamese restaurant -- a dazzling combination of unfamiliar ingredients, aromas heavy with the spice market and steamy river delta, and multiple plates and bowls mounded with greens, noodles and sauces to help build and customize each bowl. We started by heaping curls of wheat-flour noodles into our bowls and then ladling on a simmering curry-hued broth that carried hints of vanilla and star anise along with a deep meatiness from the goat bones and meat hidden below the surface. The small hotpot yielded thick slices of lotus root, speckled wedges of taro, strands of wilted greens and a raft of minced aromatics held together with a slick of fat. Our waitress suggested shoveling the garnishes in all at once, so those went into the pot, too -- turnip greens, chrysanthemum leaf, matchsticks of chive, and white cubes of lightly seasoned tofu. As if the combination of seasonings, tender and mild goat meat, and a market-stall's worth of veggies weren't enough, a side of a strange, milky dipping sauce was also included. The waitress informed us that it was a fermented tofu sauce with minced chiles -- I never would have guessed that based on the flavors alone, which were the oddest and most savory collision of the unknown and familiar that I've ever tried. Gray-green and slippery, the sauce assaulted my tongue with the sharp bite of a well-aged blue cheese, the musky funk of unfiltered vinegar, a slightly sweet and decayed flavor like overripe bananas, and a wisp of mild, vegetal chile pepper at the end. Hidden in this riot of flavors was a subtle but unmistakable note of grain alcohol, like a screwdriver from a hotel bartender trained to pour light on the vodka. I tried this sauce on the tofu, goat, taro and lotus root; it seemed to shape up into some semblance of civility on the root vegetables but was essentially untamable -- the essence of a wild creature held in a ramekin. It confounded my taste buds and lured me back for bite after bite even after my brain had long since failed to tease the various threads of flavor from its depths.
So often, something new -- like a boneless stuffed chicken wing -- may be tasty, but is merely a riff on familiar flavors and textures. This sauce was something entirely new for me, though, and I wallowed in its audacity while understanding the reality that to the Vietnamese, it's probably no more than the equivalent of French mustard on charcuterie or pickle relish on a hot dog.
I don't seek out unusual flavors and ingredients for the shock value or to impress anyone. I do it partially because I was raised in a family that ate (and enjoyed) a wide range of meats and veggies -- including the bits that often get thrown away -- and partially because my parents believed that it's polite to at least try everything that a host offers. I didn't have to take much, but I always had to finish what I put on my plate. And because I at least tried everything that was put in front of me (although I didn't always finish -- my stubborn streak sometimes left me sitting in front of a cold plate long after the rest of the table had been cleared), I eventually gained an appreciation for bold flavors, uncommon textures and new experiences.
That, or maybe I just have dull taste buds blind to the more off-putting byproducts of fermentation, the fishier end of the seafood spectrum, or even the heady, overpowering intensity of thin-shaved truffles (which just taste like mushrooms to me). But if that's the case, I at least have an easy way of trying new foods without giving offense and for enjoying exotic foods as they were originally created in their home countries. I'll trust in the hosts and cooks to do nothing more than offer their best, something they would eat themselves and serve with pride.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.