You've Seen the Movie - Now Eat It! Snakes on a Plate. Phong Dinh Restaurant. Rosemead, CA.

phong dinh sign
A beacon of edible exotica.


I’ll just get this part out of the way now. Let me clear my throat. *ahem ahem ahem*

THERE ARE MOTHERFUCKIN’ SNAKES ON MY MOTHERFUCKIN’ PLATE!!!

Oh yeah. That felt good.

By now Snakes on a Plane is out in theatres everywhere and is either:

a) thrilling audiences, or

b) unintentionally making movie goers squirt milk out of their noses.

Most reasonable people who see this "action-thriller" will be expecting “b”. After all it’s the movie’s undesigned campiness that the fans are embracing. Some have dubbed Snakes on a Plane as this summer's The Blair Witch Project due to the film’s grass-roots support which spread across cyberspace like a celebrity sex video on YouTube. Snakes on a Plane’s strange symbiotic relationship with its rabid internet following has even resulted in reshoots of the movie’s key scenes because a blogger said it would be cool.

Yo, fool, if some blogger was giving me notes on my script and I had to make those changes because the studio said so, my agent will be pumpin’ gas the next day, beeyatch! Hollah!!

I know, I know, but I suppose this is the new media age where stuff like this happens and you have to grin and bare it.

Then there’re the spoofs. Spoofs! Send ups. Parodies. Whatever you want to call them, there are lots of them poking fun at Snakes on a Plane albeit good-naturedly. You can view many of them on Snakes on a Plane's official website. Some of them are wacky, but most are more like, um, Lame on a Plane.

On the other hand, not all of this Snakes on a Plane business is wacky or harmless. Because of recent terroristic events I noticed that airport security is banning almost all liquids from being brought on by hand or in carry-on luggage—these items can be anything from shampoos to Slurpees. However, nowhere on that extensive list do I see snakes. It is so obvious that terrorists get their ideas from movies. Just look at Star Wars. The rebels aka the terrorists fly spaceships to the Death Star (the Death Star here represents democracy) and try to blow it up. Some of the rebels actually crash into the Death Star doing very little damage, however that’s all Osama needed for inspiration. Snakes on a Plane doesn’t even require a terrorist to connect any dots—zero imagination. The instructions are in the title of the movie for chrissake! Get snakes on board a plane and terrorize freedom lovers. How simple.

I can’t believe the irony either. Terrorists hate Hollywood and yet they totally steal ideas for their terroristic plots from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger films. The ultimate irony would be terrorists using snakes to take down a plane that has Snakes on a Plane as its in-flight movie. TSA needs to be on the look out for suspicious snakes rather than “no tears baby shampoos”. Besides who would want to see a movie called Herbal Essences on a Plane?

My way of pissing off the terrorists is eating snakes. If you aren't with that, then you're against freedom.

However, tracking down a restaurant in Southern California that serves snakes was going to be tough. It seemed more like a job for MI5, but they’re a tad preoccupied right now. So I did the next best thing and fired off a quick query to my dogs at Chowhound's So Cal forum. In a few hours I was directed to Phong Dinh Restaurant in Rosemead, California (about fifteen minutes east of Downtown LA).

Phong Dinh is a Vietnamese restaurant, sort of. It actually serves up more of a convoluted fusion of Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines, crossing between borders whenever it feels like it and, most of the time, without any papers. Further, Phong Dinh’s menu offers many things that aren’t typically Vietnamese and even some that aren’t typically Chinese—which is saying a lot because the Chinese eat everything. On top of that, the menu reads like an inventory list for a small zoo.

Welcome to the jungle.

When I first scouted Phong Dinh the only thing I wanted to find on the menu was snake because I wanted to call the article Snakes on a Plate because I thought it would be wacky. I did find snakes on a plate, but I also found…

Rabbit on a plate.
Squab on a plate.
Quail on a plate.
Venison on a plate.
Goat on a plate.
Boar on a plate.
Eel on a plate.
Frog legs on a plate.
Snails on a plate.
Ark shells(?) on a plate.
Alligator on a plate.
Ostrich on a plate.
Kangaroo on a plate.
Fox on a plate.

No lions and tigers or bears? But why?

Anyway, I could hardly believe it. A tear ran down my greasy cheek. I had found the Holy Grail of exotic cuisine. I simply wanted to hug the menu. I wanted to dance and buy the biggest goose in the butcher shop for the Cratchits. I was aglow with creepy culinary joy. I would’ve pinched myself if the waitstaff had better things to do than just stare at me. Then a waitress approached and asked me if I wanted to order take-out. She recommended the chicken fried-rice.

When I returned a few days later, about one week prior to Snake on a Plane’s U.S. release, I was so excited I almost forgot my digital camera and notepad. I did forget the address but fortunately Phong Dinh sits on a major boulevard and is easy to spot thanks to the green neon light framing its sign. Phong Dinh “Famous Baked Fish” the sign boasts. I laughed to myself. That’s not all you’ll be famous for. Not after I get through with you, Phong Dinh, if that really is your name.

I prepared myself for this place all week. Nobody could sidetrack me. A waiter came to the table. He tells me that the “famous baked fish” is very good. Even before he could finish his pathetic pitch for the house special, I interrupted him and asked, nicely, which snake plate he would recommend. His face contorted as if battery acid was creeping up his esophagus. He contemplated and then qualified his answer by saying, “If you like snake, then you might like charbroiled grounded snake in la lot leaves (Ran Luong La Lot).” I ordered it even though it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for because the snake was ground. How menacing is a ground snake? I may as well be eating ground turkey. So I improvised and inquired about the eel. You know, eel. Kinda snake-ish. Serpentine, I believe is the word. Also I asked if the eel was presented whole. The waiter quickly got my drift and suggested the “eel with lemon grass and chili” (Luon Xao Xa Ot). I ordered that too.

snake
Charbroiled, grounded snake in rolled "la lot" leaves.

The first dish delivered was the charbroiled, grounded snake in la lot leaves craziness. (La lot leaf is pepper leaf and is very similar to grape leaf used in Greek cuisine.) Was this a Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek wedding of an entrée? How was this fusion fused together? The ground snake meat was tightly stuffed into the leaf packets. The accoutrement dressing up this dish were slivers of marinated carrots and daikon, a mole hill of vermicelli rice noodles, some raw bean sprouts and crushed peanuts. Grab a leafy bundle of snake and little bit of everything else, roll it up in a micro thin sheet of rice noodle wrap, dip it into the tamarind-nuoc mam sauce and eat.

inside snake
Shredded snake.

I almost choked on the snake. The flavors were overpowering. I wasn’t sure if it was the venom (kidding) or the sour-bitter and smokey lot leaves or the heavy-handed dose of black pepper combined with too much lemon grass which was mixed in with the ground snake or the thought of Snakes on a Plane potentially choking badly on its opening weekend. New Line Cinema better hope the movie doesn’t choke, that way they can do the sequel…Eels on a Ship.


eel
Eel with lemon grass & chili.

On this night, however, what followed snakes on a plate was eel on a plate. And there would be no mistaking the creature from which this feast came. Far from being ground or charbroiled, the eel arrived dramatically coiled around itself, even though it was cut into bite-sized segments. Presentation was everything with this dish, but, unfortunately, it was the only thing. The kitchen proved again to be seasoning and spice happy and virtually obliterated any of the eel’s natural, mellow fish-like flavors by overseasoning. (Eel meat also resembles fish with its light, flaky texture.) Eating this particular eel was like eating stalks of lemon grass weaved together to resemble an eel. Or, perhaps, the eel, before getting to my plate, subsisted on a diet of lemon grass and nothing else.

Phong Dinh had real potential to be the Holy Grail of Deep End Dining, if it could only tame the wild side of its menu by chilling out on the spices. Finally, sort of like Snakes on a Plane’s elusive genre, this meal played out to be both terrifying and comical at the same time.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I've always wondered if they would cover news of an airplane crash on the special in-airport TV news channels... so I also wonder, would they show "Snakes on a Plane" as an in-flight movie? (while serving eel in the first class cabin, of course! :^)
Christine D. said…
I'm surprised that they didn't suggest any snake wine with your meal! :P (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake_Wine)

Also, "la lot" isn't necessarily grape leaf, although it could be substituted for it. (http://www.foodsubs.com/HerbsAsian.html)
Chubbypanda said…
Eddie,

Fun post! Reminds me of a specific episode from Tony Bordain's "A Cook's Tour". Keep up the great work.

When you've got a chance, would you check out my new food blog? It's not anywhere near as adventurous as this one, and I've never gone anywhere near balut, but I'd appreciate any feedback you might have for this food blogging newb.

Also, I noticed you seem to be the primary poster here. Do the others still contribute?

Once again, great blog. I really enjoy the articles, even if some of them make me squirm.

- Chubbypanda
Juliet said…
Eel is my all time favorite meat ever!!! I've had it at Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants, but never Vietnamese. But I do love Vietnamese food. And I love grape leaves, too. Whether at a Vietnamese or a Middle Eastern restaurant, I can't pass them up.
It really is a shame about the seasoning. I would have been excited to check this place out on our next trip to CA. Of course, between your blog and Elmo's, it looks like we'll be eating out a lot.
eatdrinknbmerry said…
haha nice post eddie. the grape leaf sounds interesting - i'm sure they served you some Ouzo with a chase of Tiger Beer.
Colleen Cuisine said…
Eddie, you are my hero - an excellent article in the name of timely food journalism.

Watching a boa constrictor eat a mouse was one of my favorite pastimes as a kid (what can I say, I was messed up). Phong Dinh could use that phenomenon to create a snake dish similar to Turducken - a snake that ate a small field animal that ate some insects... served wholly intact.
Brian Gage said…
This is everything I hoped Snakes on a Plate would be.

But what about the part where you had to battle that giant cobra before it ate the cook?
Eddie Lin said…
Sorry Comment Comrades,

I've been out of commission for a few days. Out of town and then back in town but suffered a migraine from dehydration. Long story but I'm back.


Anony,

Yeah, I've wondered that too. I actually think something similar happened once quite recently with a French airline or something. The flight was in mechanical danger and it had to stay in the air for as long as possible, meanwhile its predicament was all over the news and after a while all the passengers got wind of the news reports via cel phones. This incident ended happily, but it spawned such headlines as "Your impending death will be televised."


Christine D.

I wish I had a nice salty pairing of snake wine with my ground snake popper. Yes, I now realize, thanks to you, that "la lot" is its own special leaf. I've made the changes to my post. Thanks very much for the heads up!


Chubbypanda,

Thank you for the flattering comparison to Tony Bourdain. I'll always gladly accept those. I will check out your new food blog. Welcome to the big and ever growing family!

Yep, I am the main contributor. I didn't intend it to be that way but sometimes life has different plans. Megan McCormick of the tv series Globe Trekker was supposed to be a partner contributor but she had a baby shortly after the launch of this blog and wasn't able to dedicate the time she thought she would, so cest la vie. Hopefully she will find some time in the near future, and double hopefully she finds the time before I eat every odd, exotic thing out there in this great big world. In the meantime, I do have a secret London based correspondent who will from time to time contribute meal stories. Zahed submitted the tale of the crap food a couple of months ago. Stay tuned for more Za adventures!


Juliet,

Hey, when will you be in So Cal next? Sorry last time I got the flu. Anyway, let me know.


eatdrinknbmerry,

i wish i would've had a stiff shot of root beer just to get the taste of too much seasoning out of my mouth. i'll wait for the ouzo and tiger beer when i see you next!


rosie,

no, you're my hero! i was the kid at my school who was overly into seeing snakes eat mice also. there definitely wasn't a single girl i knew who would've joined me in watching a mouse get swallowed up whole by a boa. where have you been all my life???

and as far as the turducken concept, i love it. ratoa? or snakice? a bonus treat. except i'd really have to know in advance otherwise i might jump into the waiter's arms like a huge elephant in those old cartoons. heeheehaw!


brian,

thanks for the thumb up! i wish i could've left the cobra battle in the piece but the damn MPAA made me cut it out. this post would've gotten the kiss of death nc-17 rating. i sold out, homey.
Juliet said…
We'll be back your way around Chinese New Year. That's the plan, anyway.
Eddie Lin said…
dingobear,

thanks!


juliet,

drop me an email when the date gets closer!
elmomonster said…
Wow! Two new posts I haven't read! Too bad about the snake and the eel. Perhaps the reason they overseasoned it was to hide the actual taste of the meat. I suspect that not a lot of people order the exotics, so most of the meat must have been sitting there in the freezer for months. What better to hide the taste of freezer burn than loads of lemongrass?

Tight article though!
Eddie Lin said…
elmo,

i know. too bad about the exotic dishes. although i have barely scratched the surface of the exotic side of their menu. i'm certain i'll go back to try the *gulp* fox or ostrich.
blister said…
you are good, very good, clever and tight writing, did you know that all the eel in europe and north america come from the same deep dark pit in the sargasso sea? they meet every seven years for the orgy and the birthing of the next generation....but sadly never return to their sweet waters again.
zanks for the post
blister
Metal said…
useful information blog,very good content.
Eddie Lin said…
blister,

thank you very much for the super nice compliment. i'm very flattered. and thank you for the animal erotica. if we lack anything on this blog, it is that.


metal,

rock on!
danceswthcobras said…
Snake just isn't all that good to eat. I've tried not wasting a couple of my patients that didn't make it, but there was just no way to make them taste very good. The taste is flat and metallic and the texture is tough and stringy no matter how you cook it. Also the bones are near impossible to get around and you don't get much workable meat. I am no mean cook, and I won a gator cooking contest by figuring out how to work with the stuff so that it stayed tender and (relatively) tasty. I've never been able to do anything with snake meat that was actually worth eating.

Considering that these are slow reproducing animals at the top of the food chain, and killing them is the ecological equivalent of killing bald eagles, it would really be better to pass on the snake eating thing. That, and pretty much all parts of the snake host quantities of gram-negative bacteria that aren't necessarily pathogenic to them, but are not at all advisable for humans to ingest. If you cook snake tissue long enough for it to be safe for human consumption, it intensifies the texture problem with this meat to the point that it's really not woth the bother. So I'd say don't.

But if you do want to bother, I have veterinary patients in the freezer, mostly native and exotic venomous species.
Anonymous said…
I hope you guys enjoy foods in restaurant. I really love foods in Phong Dinh restaunrant, the waister really nice and helpful with customers. Really enjoyful in this Phong Dinh.