Apocalypse Chow! The Food Is On In Little Saigon. Pho Nguyen Hue Restaurant. Westminster, CA.
The Fall of Saigon.
Over thirty years ago, on April 30, 1975, Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, collapsed or was liberated depending on your political point of view. Soon after, a massive migration of Vietnamese refugees sorrowfully and with great peril sought out new homelands all over the world. Traversing the treacherous open seas on precarious fishing boats, many would not survive the voyage to new lands. Others, however, would end up in a drowsy middle-class suburb of Orange County, California called Westminster. Immediately upon the fall of Saigon, the capital city was renamed Ho Chí Minh after the North Vietnamese revolutionary leader. Although Saigon no longer is, the spirit of the city would rise again along with her people, tradition, culture, art and, especially, food in a place we’d come to know as Little Saigon.
Once in a great while even senseless war and regime change can bring unexpected gifts. One spring afternoon in 1982 I would discover one of these gifts. My father drove me to Little Saigon for lunch. It was there I was introduced to my first pho (pronounced - fuh) restaurant and my very first bowl of pho. For those who are unfamiliar with pho, the almost perfect meal, I feel gutwrenching pity for you. Pho at its most basic is a rice noodle soup in a beef broth served with thin slices of rare beef accompanied with a plate of limes, sprouts, herbs and greens. The savory intensity of the broth and the delicate swatches of lean flank as well as the nutty bean sprouts and fresh bouquet of spicy greens all made a lasting impression on me. That humble lunch was my awakening because never in my young life did I experience such delicious dimension in a bowl of noodle soup. I knew right away that I had just enjoyed something very special though I knew nothing of its heartbreaking and anguished journey to my table.
Ann Le, author, The Little Saigon Cookbook.
A few months ago, I met author Ann Le at a potluck party hosted by one of the producers of KCRW’s Good Food show. Prior to that we had only sent brief and cordial emails to each other. She was a recent guest on Good Food and was on-air to discuss her new cookbook The Little Saigon Cookbook. At the party I told her she had a really wonderful radio voice. She told me I was taller than she’d imagined. I thought to myself that she looked a lot like a Vietnamese Rachael Ray. On the perk-o-meter, Ann’s perkiness level was just about that of Rachael Ray’s. I wasn’t about to share these unspeakable thoughts with her. Then suddenly my wife volunteered, “You know, you’re like a Vietnamese Rachael Ray!” Check, please.
Ann Le’s The Little Saigon Cookbook ventures beyond being solely a cookbook and sheds profound light on the brief history of Vietnamese cuisine in America’s multicultural buffet. Understanding the food via the culture and people are just a couple of ways Ann’s book explores this savory world. Another way she accomplishes this is, of course, by sharing her culture’s food with us. And, personally, that’s my favorite way.
I was honored enough to be invited by Ann to have lunch with her and a fellow writer friend of hers, Kim Fay. Undoubtedly, Little Saigon was to be our edible playground. However, I was surprised to find out that Ann’s father Bobo (bo means “father” in Vietnamese) planned to join us for lunch not simply because he was hungry but because he learned I was coming and that I was craving something, eh, special. Bobo offered to show me just how, eh, special Vietnamese food could be. I took that as a challenge and happily accepted his offer.
Chicken pho or Pho Ga.
Most of the Vietnamese restaurants and pho shacks that I frequent dish up the usual bowls of steaming rice noodle soup heaven, the fantastic seven courses of beef (a veritable carnivore’s carnival) and other inviting fare. But at these eateries I’ve never spied any item on the menu that reached out of the page, grabbed me by the throat then rudely spat, “Eat me! I dare you!” Granted, this is coming from me, a guy who likens tripe to potato chips - a really, really chewy potato chip, to be sure. So perhaps some of these restaurants do have challenging chow on their list of offerings but for me they just weren’t challenging enough. Bobo promised to change that once and for all.
Our group set off to find the pho house called Pho Nguyen Hue. Located somewhere within the city limits of Little Saigon, it is purported that Pho Nguyen Hue offers fare not normally found on the average pho house menu, and with any luck I’ll eat dishes there that will make my dining experience a deep one.
We began looking for this place on Little Saigon’s main drag, Bolsa Avenue. This main artery running through Little Saigon is home to a massive variety of shops, cafés, markets, herbalists, bakeries, delis, pho houses and other types of Vietnamese restaurants. The place we were trying to find was not here. So we veered of the big avenue and into the more obscure territories of the town. Ann consulted her GPS navigation system on her Prius but it didn’t seem to get us any closer to the restaurant. To make matters worse, Ann was giving wrong directions to Kim who was on her phone trying to direct other friends to the place we were ineffectually traveling towards. The blind leading the blind.
The heat and humidity were oppressive and suddenly this wild goose chase began to resemble another kind of hunt where the ultimate game is man. Each time we would return to Bolsa Avenue to get our bearings, the avenue’s asphalt seemed to shimmer from the midday sun, making it look like a river. I imagined that it was the Mekong River and the little Prius was our swift boat cruising past dense shores of jungle trying to find our target. We eased into one of the river’s tributaries. Er, I mean, we turned onto a side street. What were we looking for again? God, it’s hot. Really fuckin’ hot. Are we there yet? Have we found him? Colonel Kurtz? Oh, right. It’s not Kurtz we’re after; it’s Pho Nguyen Hue. And it was on Bolsa all along.
Here at Pho Nguyen Hue, flank steak is strictly for the kiddie table. If you think pho is just about beef, chicken or even *gasp* vegetarian, then you’re in for a pho-reaky surprise.
Once seated, Bobo eagerly pointed out the picks on the menu that might tickle my fancy. He delighted in explaining an odd delicacy that involves a slowly stewed hen that still carried eggs inside it, though in actuality they were premature yolk rather than eggs, follicles perhaps. (These yolk are unfertilized if that’s of any comfort to you, loyal reader.) This chicken and egg pho combo is called Pho Ga Trung Non Them. If your waiter can speak some English, then you can simply ask for the chicken pho with the “small eggs”. Bobo employs a limited amount of English so Ann had to do some complex translating for her father in order to precisely illustrate this treat. At one point I feared we were venturing into the realm of Vietnamese hot vit lon or Filipino balut (duck embryo), but when I finally got what this thing was about, I looked forward to meeting it.
Hello penis, my old friend…
It’s been long overdue. The first time I had bull cock in my mouth was about four years ago in Shanghai. It was just one of many strange meats in our exotic hot pot banquet that evening. Now I got the opportunity to revisit penis as interpreted by pho. The Pho Pin Xe Lua is basically your average pho but dick is substituted in place of thin beef slices. And don’t think for a second that size doesn’t matter; you get to choose how big you like it. Your choices are small, medium or large. Magnum is not an option, cowboy. Naturally, I ordered the large.
Enough time has passed since my last meal of a bull’s member that I forgot what it was like. They say you never forget your first, but my memory is quite foggy with this. I do remember it being a bit rubbery but not in a condom kind of way. It was, you know, chewy.
To my amusement, since I do collect the often odd, effed up and wildly baffling English mis-translations on ethnic restaurant menus, Pho Nguyen Hue uses the word “pudendum” (as a euphemism, I’m guessing) to say penis. “Pudendum” as defined in Webster’s Collegiate is “the external genital organs, esp. of a female; vulva.” Now I was confused as well as a little excited. Was I going to eat penis or vulva? My pulse raced. I’ve never had vulva. (I meant cow’s vulva, wisenheimer.) But what added to the confusion was the "bull-" preceding the word “pudendum”. On the menu it read “bull-pudendum”. Is there such a thing as a bull’s vulva? And do I really want to eat one? Even I’m not quite ready for a taste of hermaphroditic bovine. Whatever it is, the order was placed.
The next dish we asked for was under the Mon An or Traditional Food category. Actually Kim ordered this dish called Oc Gia Ba Ba; in English it’s escargot with tofu and green banana. If you’re into that Slow Food movement and enjoy eating your food at a snail’s pace, then escargot need to be routinely on your plate. The idea of tofu and green bananas mingling with snails had most of us scratching our heads but we were still intrigued enough to order it.
“Okay, premature yolk, schlong and slugs comin’ up!,” confirmed the waiter. Not really. His English was much better than that.
While we waited for our food, a few more friends of Ann and Kim finally arrived to join us. Strangely, they opted for less phallic selections.
Chopped stewed chicken and bonus bits of nasty.
First, the steaming bowl of pho arrived. This was to be the canvas on which the chicken and the bull pudendum would decorate. Although I technically ordered two phos, a beef pho and a chicken pho, only the chicken pho, which I do not prefer, was brought out to me. This didn’t bother me very much because the pho itself really was just filler. I wanted to isolate the experiences of the odd “pre-eggs” as well as the bull pudendum anyway. Shortly afterwards, a small platter of chopped steamed chicken showed up, along with a small soup bowl filled with broth and miniature orbs of golden-orange yolk. The chicken, in taste and appearance, was reminiscent of Hainan Chicken. That was accompanied by a motley mix of nasty bits—chicken gizzards and livers, and dice-sized cubes of coagulated pig’s blood.
I'm not an egg. Not yet a chicken. Just kidding.
Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, so the proverb goes. But in this case you can certainly count your eggs before they’re laid. Presumably, my bowl of about ten premature yolk or follicles came from the same hen. Remarkably the yolk retained their perfectly spherical shape thanks to the cooking technique. Smaller than a normal chicken yolk, since they are premature, I picked one up and popped it in my mouth like a malt ball. But, it was more like chewing a racquet ball. The feel of the yolk was synthetic but that gave way after some chewing to the familiar chalkiness of the average hard-boiled egg yolk. There was virtually no flavor other than a wispy taste of something yolk like. Ultimately this delicacy was a novelty act with not much going for it.
Floating chunks of bull penis.
There is nothing like a bowl of bull penis to get the dick jokes going. After the giggling subsided and the bad dick jokes ended, I tried a piece of the bull pudendum, which turned out to be penis and not vulva (though, I had secretly wished it was vulva). Like the last time I had bull penis, it proved to be a chewy endeavor. It's very much like beef tendon, in fact, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference if it wasn’t for Bobo constantly pointing out the penis’ urethra. “See the hole?” he’d ask repeatedly. The broth that the penile chunks were floating in was not nearly as robust as good pho broth should be therefore the penis wasn’t very flavorful. No penis envy here. And I’m totally not trying to be a dick. It’s only my opinion.
Very slow food.
When the escargot with tofu and green banana came to the table, I could tell it was going to be good. Visually it had the appealing array of colors and textures that are essential to multi-dimensional and flavor balanced dishes. The escargot looked plump and juicy. I anticipated a struggle chewing through them but they were as tender as perfectly cooked calamari. Best of all, the snails soaked up all the personality of the rich broth, and this was evident with every bite. The broth itself is a wonderfully unique synthesis of flavors with the spicy-sweet from the cinnamon basil, the earthiness from the escargot, the dull pungency of the green banana and a combination of other spices and seasoning. It was very much like a cinnamony curry. Inexplicably the tofu was substituted with pork skin. Fortunately, this switch added to the great flavor and uniqueness of the dish.
It used to make me nuts when the uninformed person would describe Chinese food as merely egg rolls, shrimp fried rice and a fortune cookie. But I may be just as guilty of ignorance when it comes to Vietnamese food with my limited knowledge. Thanks to Ann Le, her book, Bobo and their generosity and patience in sharing their culinary knowledge with me, I can move beyond the pho section of the menu and see what other delicious possibilities await. And there doesn’t even have to be a penis anywhere in the bowl.