It's a Wrap
Dennis A. Chansky
May 2, 2002
It has been nearly 30 years since the American withdrawal of forces from Vietnam, an event that hastened the downfall of Saigon, which in turn inspired talk among security analysts of a "Bamboo Curtain" descending upon Southeast Asia.
And truly, Vietnamese culture and cuisine remain largely unknown to mostly Americans. Outside of a few major cities, especially Boston and San Francisco, this proud cuisine has yet to find a regular niche in the habits of diners. There is only one Vietnamese restaurant serving the people of Rockland, the Viet Nam in Spring Valley.
To paraphrase Churchill speaking of that other security curtain (iron one), Vietnamese cooking remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Which leads us to a conundrum - in order to unwrap this mystery, we must wrap. That is, we must examine a series of dishes illustrative of the Vietnamese idiom, which entail wrapping grilled meats, fresh herbs and rice noodles in curly lettuce leaves.
At the Viet Nam, both beef and pork are offered at the center of these dishes. As an appetizer, beef was marketed as Vietnamese fajitas, called bo nuong xa. Strips of beef the thickness of fine leather were grilled as severely as possible without becoming too stiff. Their flimsiness helped them retain the bouquet of the spices in which they were rubbed or marinated, especially garlic.
On the side were lettuce leaves, stalks of basil and mint, sticky translucent rice-flour pancakes, a soufflé cup of brown fruity barbeque sauce and a ramekin of tart and sweet white vinaigrette for dipping. When combined in one roll, the result is perhaps the brightest treatment afforded beef anywhere. There was not a lot of nuance, just pure tones of garden sweetness, hibachi smokiness and garlicky tang.
With pork as a main course, called bahn hoi thit nuong, there were few changes. The deep sensation of mint replaced by a sharp twinge of cilantro, and small tufts of rice vermicelli were absorbent pillows for the strips of pork. The noodles fit comfortably within the context of the rolls, giving them more substance, and greater chili paste is also prominent in some dishes, like in an excellent appetizer special of sautéed Manila clams. Clear snappy strips of onion were flash-cooked with a dozen of the tender meaty clams in their shells. Liberal application of red chili paste mixed with undiluted clam brine made a fortissimo sauce.
Noodles thrive in several different treatments. In a famous national dish, hu tieu my tho, chewy transparent noodles swim in a polyglot broth with overtones of roots and greens, meat, shellfish, and fowl. Each of these categories is also represented in the floating ingredients, as are well-browned fish balls made from pounded white fish.
Mi xao don, resembled a bird's nest, with fried curly intertwined noodles supporting a mound of sautéed shrimp, scallops and snow crabmeat sections. With crispy noodles and mild starchy sauce, chow mein was the essence of this preparation.
Parasol-shaped straw mushrooms paired with medium shrimp, com tom xao nam rom, finally brought rice are enumerated, and the rice is pressed together in a thin round cake over which the entrée is poured out. This entrée was held together by flat brown sauce.
It had been four years since my first visit to the Vietnam, which was too long to wait for the fried wonton again. Trying these golden fried crisp crumbly bundles of cream cheese with a sweet apricot dipping sauce deserve to be on everyone's list of things to try at least once a year.
Battered chicken wings were meaty and crispy, and coated with tasty garlic butter.
Imported Saigon Beer is brewed to be malty sweet, golden and smooth, with only a hint of hops. In light of the drought restrictions, spring water was poured for the tables.
We were there on a quiet rainy night, and service was prompt, with our server realizing quickly that we intended to share everything, and accordingly coordinating the dishes' arrival to maximize our enjoyment.
Two desserts were available beside ice cream. Taro root pudding, a shocking shade of Day-Glo green, was not too sweet on its own, and benefited from a covering of warm sweetened milk that made it seem like lumpy green rice pudding. Sticky rice wrapped around fried banana was like rice pudding without the cream (although a little of the hot milk was ladled over it).
So wrap up your troubles in a lettuce leaf and smile, smile, smile.