I love Vietnamese food.. Thats just all there is to it.. So, when 9Lives showed up for our Friday lunch vacillating about what he wanted to eat, I struck. I went for my second favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Hu Tieu Nam Vang, better known as Nam Vang, at 7 Beach St. in Chinatown.
I know he likes pho, but he hadnt ventured further..I determined to expose him to "Vietnamese 102"
Now, its a wonderful thing when a true hound allows you to take control..I wanted to order things that were truly Vietnamese, as 9L later said, "Where it was all about texture, and the mix of cooked things and fresh herbs "
Those fresh herbs and greens are the hallmarks of true Vietnamese dishes We eschewed the pseudo-Chinese stir-fries that seem to be on the menu at every Vietnamese place (many ethnic Vietnamese have settled in China), and started with Banh Xeo, the quintessential Vietnamese streetfood Its often described as Vietnamese Pizza on translated menus, but that does it a disservice Its a giant, thick pancake, made of rice flour, coconut milk, egg and some turmeric and curry, fried crispy on one side, a little soft on the other, with shrimp and sometimes pork mixed in, and folded over bean sprouts You tear off a small piece, wrap it in a piece of lettuce, add a little purple basil, if youre lucky(and we were!) and dip it into the nuoc cham And repeat Crispy,messy and good Nam Vangs version was stellar, the only thing that could have made it better was green leaf lettuce, or something that would have made it easier to wrap than the very fresh ice-berg that they served
I had to impress with the soup. I went for my favorite, often mentioned here, Bun Rieu Tomato and crabmeat-ball. Huh? Spicy, tomatoey broth, some chunks of tomato, some chunks of fried tofu, some "krab" But it took 9Lives to finally explain the crab meatballs..I saw the dried shrimp, I knew there was crab, and some shrimp paste..But he pointed out that the depth I could never figure out was the "guts" of the crab, the tomalley, the roe, the golden fat under the shell It all binds these quenelle-like blobs, and brings Nam Vangs version of this soup to chow-level! (Make sure you get the rice or vermicelli on THE SIDE!!!)
I next ordered a dish that had 9L raising his eyebrows, but it was a winner. Ca Kho To, or fish in hot pot, or fish in clay pot, or fish in caramel sauce, is my favorite Vietnamese dish. I had it on my list to try it at NV, and I wasnt disappointed Slices of catfish are braised in a little caramelized sugar, to which is added fish sauce, garlic, scallion, Thai bird chilies and soy sauce They cook it til its bubbling and has gluey bits around the edges. Its the perfect combination of sweet and salty all at once, and if the catfish is fatty, as this one was, you get that melty fat that your Grandma cooked if she was Asian and made good pork parts! In fact, this dish has been described to me as Vietnamese Grandmas cooking The first time I tasted it, it reminded me of the braised beef with onions that my Jewish Grandma used to make, when I still ate meat 9L said the depth of the sauce, combined with the fish oil, made him think of eel, and the mouth feel was all about pork (!) BTW, this dish IS also available in a pork version NV's version has the best complexity of spices and heat that I've tasted in Boston.
So, tho Ive often posted about all the amazing soups at this place, I can give it an unqualified "Go here, for the next level of your Vietnamese culinary education!"