I blame Tony Bourdain. If it weren't for the A Cook's Tour rerun that the TiVo picked up recently, I wouldn't have renewed my quixotic quest for Vietnamese noodles in a soup with snails, crabmeat, and boiled tomatoes.
For a while, I had just about given up on finding a place which serves this Vietnamese dish, but seeing the sight of him slurping this steaming bowl of noodles at a roadside stand near a glassy lake in Hanoi flipped on a Pavlovian response and had me drooling again.
I must have it, and I must have it now!
I had done a little research on the dish when I saw this same episode a year ago. Through a food blog called "noodlepie" I found the name by which to call my fixation: Bun Rieu Oc.
Bun = thin vermicelli rice noodles
Rieu = crabmeat
Oc = snail
And through Chowhound, I found a place in nearby Little Saigon called Thanh Mai where it is offered.
But as soon as I ordered it, I got an uneasy feeling. First, I was the only patron in the restaurant. Granted, it was only nine thirty in the morning, but from what I understood, this was supposed to be breakfast food. Where was everybody?
Second, the photo of the soup on the menu looked nothing like the bowl Mr. Bourdain ate on his show. The broth he sipped was clear, almost like pho stock, but with red hemispheres of cooked tomato, limp strips of yellow pepper, green onion, and brown morsels of escargot. The picture I pointed to when my waiter came around showed a broth which was murky red and thick. It had cubes of fried golden tofu floating on top like waterwings left abandoned at the backyard pool.
My fears were confirmed when the bowl appeared from the kitchen and was brought to my table.
The overwhelming odor hit my nostrils almost instantly, making an indelible impression that I will remember for the rest of my natural life. It rode up on the steam ribbons emanating from the boiling soup -- a nasty, rank and fishy stench the likes of which, if it were in a cartoon, would be animated as ghostly fish skeletons floating up from the bowl. It was a smell so putrid that I had to turn my head away to gasp for a fresh gulp of air. Whatever they put in this soup reeked like the dumpster of a Chinese seafood restaurant after it's festered in the balmy heat of August.
And before you judge me, let me tell you that I'm no stranger to nouc nam, bagoong, terasi, or even petis, which I grew up eating plain, sandwiched between fried tofu. I'm not squeamish on stinky products made from fermented sea creatures. But this was a different beast entirely.
Prodding the soup with my chopstick and doing a cursory sniff on the pieces floating in the soup like a bloodhound, I immediately found the source of the odor. It was the crabmeat, made from the stuff sold in cans, hand formed into balls, held together with egg and flour as binder.
I ate it and tasted crab, but not crab as I knew it. Was it past its prime? Or just a bum batch? This I did not know. What I did know was that I didn't like this sweet and faintly crabby concoction, although it tasted better than it smelled. But its mushy texture reminded me of matzo ball -- a most un-Kosher matzo ball.
The sea snails, however, had no smell or taste. What these thimble sized white cylinders had going was texture. They looked like button mushrooms, but with the disturbingly crunchy and rubbery toughness of a cheap plastic wine cork. It resisted my bite at first, but as soon as I applied more pressure, it shattered into pieces. I had to stop after two. I left the rest undisturbed as I finished the soup.
What I did like were the noodles, which disintegrated like a ghost upon entering my mouth. It was the perfect delivery device and companion for the broth, which was a cross between Campbell's Tomato and Campbell's Chicken Noodle, both hearty and light. The fried tofu cubes -- hollow, save for a thin layer of pulp around the interior of the fried skin -- was pleasantly familiar. And the boiled tomato had a nice tartness which balanced the sweetness of the soup.
But I won't be ordering this particular dish again. At least not from Thanh Mai. The fishy funk haunted my mouth and soul for the rest of the afternoon like a poltergeist. As I tried in vain to flush it away with cream puff after cream puff from Gala Bakery across the street, I am reminded of the old adage: "Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it."
Boy did I ever.
Thanh Mai Restaurant
15041 Moran St
Westminster, CA 92683