Cafe Society

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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