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April 2017

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PHO SAIGON

When you travel to other countries, you find that foods that seem completely bizarre to you are just ordinary, everyday dishes to the people of that culture. In Malaysia, for example, curried hard-boiled eggs are a very common Muslim street food. Whenever I saw people selling them, I would make a face, until finally the guy who was showing us around politely pointed out that we Westerners also eat some pretty strange things. Cheese, for example, appeared to him to be nothing but milk that was so rotten it had become solid, a totally disgusting thing.
I appreciated his insight so much, I grabbed a couple of the eggs. They were really tasty and reminded me of the curried deviled eggs that were a highlight of my grandmother's Fourth of July picnics. - Chris Schlesinger, "Big Flavors of the Hot Sun"


On a recent visit to Pho Saigon, Femme de Joie could not help but overhear the - loud - conversation of two middle-aged men who were reviewing the menu.

"They're got some pretty weird things here."
"What's that - soda with egg yolk?"
"Oh man, I tried that. It's - ugh. Awful."
"What about that herb drink, what's that?"
"Aw, man, it's - it's - you'd hate it."
"Ever tried that red bean drink?"
"Man, that stuff was nasty."

And on it went. The Vietnamese owners would have been hard put to not hear this blanket negative review of drinks that are everyday and normal to them but disgusting to the two Americans. It's one thing to eat a familiar food, such as a cheeseburger, and not like how it was prepared; it's quite another to describe another culture's food as weird or disgusting just because it is unfamiliar to one's palate or has connotations that are personally unattractive. It's insulting to those preparing your food and doesn't reflect well on the speaker - it's like hearing a child say, "Yuck!" repeatedly when offered a new food.

M. de Joie, for instance, would have to be exceedingly intoxicated before she would even consider eating rattlesnake. However, she personally knows people who think nothing of killing one, cutting it up, and frying it like chicken, then snarfing it down with plenty of beer on the side, and more power to them. M. de Joie has a lifetime of prejudice against snakes of every stripe; for her, rattlesnake is a loathesome creature in every respect and the mere thought of eating one makes her queasy, yet it is a not-uncommon food in certain segments of America. The same people who dine on a rattler would probably turn green at the thought of eating a cobra - but what's the difference?

But back to Pho Saigon, a little Vietnamese restaurant that opened this summer in a far-off corner of a strip mall on Hartnell. Pho (pronounced "fuh") is Vietnamese beef noodle soup, and if that reminds you of a can of Campbell's, you ain't tasted nothin' yet. As Proust had his madelines, Vietnamese have their pho. As restauranteur and cookbook author Mai Pham says, "But mention pho -- our beloved beef noodle soup -- and immediately our differences vanish. Our eyes shine, our faces beam. All of a sudden we've become an agreeable family with a love for one another that's as strong, compelling and reassuring as the beefy steam that billows and curls from a bowl of pho."
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This little cafe is sparkling clean with new tables and chairs. It's a bit short on atmosphere - the better to concentrate on your food. Pinned to the wall are handwritten menus of vegetarian dishes and color photos of featured items.
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Every table has a selection of condiments including soy sauce, fish sauce, red chili paste, hot chili oil, sugar, with fresh chiles in vinegar upon request; a dispenser of green chopsticks and soup spoons.

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Cafe sua da - Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk, $3.00. A few years ago this virtually unknown in this country, but the proliferation of Thai restaurants has made this sweet, delicious drink popular. It goes especially well with hot and spicy foods.
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Goi cuon - fresh spring rolls with shrimp, pork, lettuce, vermicelli, cilantro, served with hoisin sauce with chopped peanuts. This was an amazing cold appetizer, an explosion of contrasting flavors and textures wrapped in soft rice paper.
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Bowls of pho always are accompanied by a plate of crisp bean sprouts, hot fresh chilis (in this case, Jalapenos), lime wedges, and either fresh cilantro or fresh basil, for the diner to add to the soup as they please.
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Tai sach - Pho with rice noodles, thin slices of steak, and tripe, topped with bean sprouts and cilantro (small bowl $6.99). Huge amounts of meat are not the norm with pho - it is primarily a noodle soup in a meat broth, flavored with star anise and herbs, with a small amount of meat. And the meats used may include brisket, flank steak, meatballs, or more flavorful but lesser-used cuts such as tendon and tripe. Flavor your soup with table condiments and the dish of fresh accompaniments - this will cure whatever ails you.
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Banh xeo - crispy crepe with pork and shrimp, $6.99. The waitress explained that the shredded salad ingredients (carrot, cucumber, sprouts) are to be wrapped in the fresh leaf lettuce, rolled up, and dipped in the spicy-sweet sauce. The crisp fried crepe contained a bare minimum of shrimp and pork - not filled like a French crepe, but served more as an accompaniment to the greens.
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Pho hai san - shrimp, squid, fish cake, imitation crabmeat with rice noodles, small bowl $7.99. Again, noodles are the primary ingredient. The fish cake is strongly flavored but not really pungent; it tasted rather like a strong salmon-flavored pate.

In addition to a wide selection of pho, rice plates (such as com ga nuong, grilled chicken with steamed rice for $9.99) and vermicelli plates (bun thit nuong, grilled pork, lettuce, carrot, peanut with vermicelli, $9.99) are offered.

It makes M. de Joie's heart sing to see an independently-owned restaurant deservedly succeed and she hopes this little place will get the business to survive. The food is inexpensive, delicious, and healthy. If you're looking to branch out from Thai or other more familiar Asian cuisine, visit Pho Saigon.

Pho Saigon, 236 Hartnell Avenue, Redding. 530-223-9888. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 AM to 9 PM, Sunday 11 AM to 7 PM. Cash and cards. No checks. No alcohol. Ample on-site parking.

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