I've had a tough time finding any Vietnamese food that I like up in L.A. and San Gabriel. Pho 87 in downtown is pretty good - a good balanced broth - and Buu Dien in downtown is quite good, especially for nem nuong (pork ball) sandwiches, but most of the rest throughout downtown and San Gabriel have been... decent but sort of lifeless. Golden Deli, even - it's probably the best I've had up here but lacking in a certain Viet-care - the herbs are old and withered, the noodles in the soups are overcooked and toothsome, the broth tastes of old meat and MSG, egg-rolls are a little greasy and a bit overfried, and very meaty/salty, but without any of that herb/spice oddity balance behind it. Decent, but even with all my homesick hungerings for my Mom's cooking and all the Viet diners serving exactly the same menu in the Viet suburbs of my childhood home in San Jose, I've never gone back after the first visit and the second give-it-another-chance visit.
All of these I've found pretty empty of satisfaction, compared to the wonders of Little Saigon. Brodard's, Tay Ho, Ha Noi restaurant, Pho 54, Top Baguette - every single one of those is completely emotionally fulfilling, and tops in exactly that way that I love what is basically my home cuisine - full of vivid, delicate balances. Fresh, bright herbs, clear broths, a distinct bit of clove flavor here, a roasted onion flavor balanced against a sweetness.
Anyway, reading the recent posts on Lee Kam Kee, mentioning some favorites of mine - pho ga, and lemongrass pork chops, I dragged out Sarah and we went.
The place felt right. The menu was pure-down-the-line Viet, the place feels very much like my other favorite Vietnamese places, all my good-vibes are buzzing, we order pho go and lemongrass pork chops...
And I feel a certain emptiness. My pork chop is a very well-fried pork chop - nice crust, good pork flavor - but lacking some myterious magical essence that any Viet lemongrass meat dish has. *It lacked any sharp lemongrass flavor*. It lacked any discernable spice or herb flavors at all - just a sort of mellow, quiet, sweet spice blend that hung around below the meat.
The nuoc mam (fish sauce) was similar - no salty/sharp/fish tang balance, just a kind of quiet, mellow sauce.
The more I moved around on my plate, the more I sort of felt that there were a lot of concessions to the usual Vietnamese garnishes and stylings - there were the pickled daikon and carrot strips, there was the broken rice - but that all of it was sort of going through the motions. The pickles had no vinegar tang at all, almost no flavor. The point of broken rice is that you leave it a bit dry, and the broken rice provides a kind of distinct mealiness, sort of like couscous in your mouth. But this broken rice was damp and moist - no texture at all.
Checked out Sarah's pho ga. Noodles limp. Broth didn't taste like a pho broth at all - no clove flavors, no roasted onion flavor, no balances - just regular chicken and a bit of MSG flavor. And there was no herb plate.
At this point, I start to freak out a little. I mean, it's part of the essence of pho, the essence of Vietnamese food - fresh herbs to throw in and infuse the broth. Any decent Vietnamese restaurant has loads of fresh, beautiful herbs - a whithered herb plate is a sign of age, despair, near-death.
This place had NO HERB PLATE AT ALL.
You know that moment in The Crying Game? Where the super-hetero maine character finds out that his girlfriend has a penis? I felt kinda like that.
If I had to venture a guess, I'd guess that this is Vietnamese food sort of modified down for the Cantonese palate - smoothened out, de-vivified, mellowed. Which is not to speak out against the Cantonese aesthetic of food, which is as close to my heart as the Viet aesthetic, or to speak out against, say, fusion. Or the cry "inauthentic", because God knows, that doesn't mean a goddamn thing to me. I stand by Blue Marlin's japanese-style Italian (spaghetti with sea urchin roe!), I stand by Tapoica Express's rosewater slush boba, I stand by Morocco and their ancient French/Persian fusion, I stand by all the food from the Northern Thai/Chinese border, I stand by banh mi (for god's sake, Viet meats on French baguettes), I even freakin' stand by that freakin' Food TV dude with the sake-marinated French-style sea-bass, but there's a difference between fused food and dumbed down food, there's a difference between a Northern Thai place where you can get full-steam-ahead green papaya salad and fried wontons, and gringo-fied Mexican, which tastes of nothing but tomatoes and cheap guacomole and soggy tortillas, and this place feels dumbed down to me.
It kinda just depressed me.
Maybe I'm just prejudiced or inflexible where Viet food is concerned, I dunno. It could be. But try going down to Little Saigon - eat at Brodard's and get some Viet crepes and hanoi-style meatballs simmered in nuoc mam; eat at Ha Noi restaurant and get some fried yam and shrimp fritters wrapped in fresh herbs; go to... oh god, my brain freezes, but the place down there called My something, thje place with the brilliant eel curry and venison; and then come back and tell me what you think.