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New Loi's
890 Taraval Street/19th Ave., SF
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10/11/02

Out front.Guest Judge Cork Graham
Author of The Bamboo Chest

Considering as a child I spent four years in Vietnam during some of the worst moments of the war, and then later as an 18-year-old photojournalist, surviving 11 months in a Communist reeducation camp as the first American political prisoner held by the Hanoi government since the end of the war, many assume that Vietnam and specifically Vietnamese cooking are the bane of my memory.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I can think of no food more tempting to the palate, with so many nuances that derive not only from the many different ingredients, but from the differences in preparation, revealing that in contrast to political rhetoric, there really is a division between North and a South Vietnam, or more accurately a North, South, and Central Vietnam. Most of what is available around the Bay Area, or in the United States for that matter, is the cuisine of South and Central Vietnam, and so it was with great delight that I was able to introduce the The Füd Court to the unique tastes of North Vietnam, prepared by my long-time friend, Hanoi native Minh Loi.

AppsTo start we had cha gio (pronounced chai-yah), and labeled in English as "imperial rolls." ($3.95) Nothing unique in terms of dish choice, but a good introduction to the ingredients of Vietnamese cooking, especially nuoc mam, a sauce that is made -- most notably around the western town of Rach Gia -- by filling giant, silo-like towers with layer upon layer of sea salt and anchovies. Water is then poured in at the top and the product that arrives many feet below and days later is very salty, anchovy-tainted water that is Vietnam's answer to Chinese or Japanese soy sauce.

What's unique about Minh's cha gios is that they are packed with ingredients that betray his Chinese-North Vietnamese heritage: namely the black wood ear mushroom (auricularia polytricha) that most of the time turns up in Chinese dishes. Chopped finely, the black wood ear is mixed in with the other ground cha gio ingredients of pork, white onion, black pepper, carrot, sugar, and salt (in South Vietnam, the ingredients often include chicken and shrimp and rice noodle sans carrots). Dipped in the accompanying sauce bowl of nuoc cham, it's a great appetizer. I do chide Minh about how cha gio is supposed to be made with rice paper, and hope that one day he'll offer that again. Rice paper cha gio makes all the difference, and used to be how I'd rate every Vietnamese restaurant, like how I rate Italian restaurants by the quality of their tiramisu.

We also ordered goi cuon (spring rolls, $3.95), a great alternative to the fried imperial roll, if you prefer to keep your oil intake down. The goi cuon is a wonderful hot-day dish because of its crispy salad texture. It consists of a collection of cold rice noodle, iceberg lettuce, bean sprouts, a couple lengths of scallion, roast pork slices, and shrimp. These are all rolled up in moistened rice paper and served with a side of two different nuoc chams (dipping sauces): One is a mixture of sugar, nuoc mam, vinegar, chili paste, and some strands of sliced carrots; the other is a concoction of hoi sin sauce, plum, and peanuts.

Banh Cuon Tay HoBanh Cuon Tay Ho (Vietnamese Steam Rolls, $5.25) was another arrival at our table, and a wonder to behold. Minh's recipe calls for a black-peppered ground pork and chopped black wood ear enveloped and steamed in a thick layer of rice paper. A garnishing of white Chinese bologna topped each envelope, and that was sprinkled with a fine coating of powdered dried shrimp. In the center of the plate rested a small mound of sweet-pickled carrot and daikon slices. Again, the nuoc cham arrived as its dipping sauce.

Small empty bowls accompanied this dish, used to hold one of the rice paper envelopes of Banh Cuon Tay Ho, which is topped with one or two slices each of the carrot and daikon. Then, grabbing a Chinese soup spoon, we sprinkled a spoonful of the sweet nuoc mam over the arrangement. You can cheat with forks, or the spoon, but we went traditional and grabbed a corner of the envelope with chopsticks and worked our way down, sometimes sliding the garnished meal into our mouths, using the bowl as an extension of the cup of our hand.

Continuing on with our multi-course meal, we tried Cha Ca La Vong (Hanoi-style BBQ fish, $12.99). When Minh opened the New Loi's, he wanted to add a few more items to the menu to distinguish it from the original Loi's he had started and given to his sister and brother-in-law, which is still on Irving Street. When I first tried his original dish of BBQ fish, I wasn't too impressed. It was made with catfish, which wasn't to my taste as I find catfish too muddy a fish to eat if not fried Cajun-style, or served in a traditional Vietnamese claypot. So, I ordered it with trepidation, worried that perhaps the Füd Court would think the same of it. But, this time sea bass was in season!

First to arrive were the garnishes of fresh dill, mint, white onions, peanuts, and lettuce. When the skewered cubes of sea bass arrived we didn't have to be told how good it was going to be. The overwhelming sweet perfume of yellow ginger powder led the way for the barbecued bass lightly coated with the ginger powder and basted with a light coating of corn oil. Surrounding it were small plates of pickled carrot and daikon again; with a plate of fresh iceberg lettuce, sprigs of mint and Thai basil, and of course, bean sprouts. For dipping there was a subtle sauce made from shrimp paste and sweetened nuoc mam that looks like taro ice-cream but is such a perfect match with the already delicately sweet taste of the sea bass.

To really enjoy this Hanoi masterpiece, you take the bowl -- sometimes a plate is served, but plates don't give you the control that a bowl does -- and lay a leaf of lettuce in it. Then a small bit of everything, except the fish. You will be rolling this up like a taco or burrito, so pay special attention to mass as it will explode and fall to pieces if you put too much inside. To finish, take a square of the fish, dip it lightly in the sauce, lay it on the mini salad you've collected, then roll it up by hand, or pinch it together like that taco with your chopsticks. Using the bowl as if you were eating from the palm of your hand, enjoy!

For variety within a dish, my favorite is the Banh Hoi Chao Tom Thit Nuong (Shrimp-wrapped sugarcane with BBQ pork, $11.99), which is big enough that you either have to arrive with a large appetite, or bring friends and share it along with the variety of meals we enjoyed that evening. First to arrive was the large plate of grilled pork, and ground shrimp wrapped around sections of sugar cane, with a center garnish of pickled carrot and daikon. On another two plates arrived the lettuce, basil, and bean sprouts. The other plate was covered in a thin later of moistened rice paper.

This dish is normally served with a small plate. I suggest requesting a bowl -- you will have nuoc cham on the bottom of the dish and it could get messy if you use a plate. Make a roll as you've done with the fish dish, and try a piece of the shrimp patty with the BBQ pork, or a piece each, respectively. And as a final treat, like a small cone of vanilla ice-cream in a hottie-tottie restaurant, chew a piece of sugar cane to cleanse the palate. But remember, after you've gotten all the sugar juice out, to spit the resulting pulp into a plate or napkin, as is the custom in Vietnam.

Pho!We had gone through the main courses, and as is tradition we finished off with soup. Normally we'd have just had one (we were already quite full by now!), but since I really wanted to give the Füd Court both barrels, I ordered the traditional Pho with a twist, and the Vietnamese version of vegetable beef soup. Both soups arrived within a moment of each other, but I knew it was wise to hit the senses first with the Pho Tom Bo Nuong (BBQ shrimp and beef noodle soup, $7.45).

This dish of Minh Loi's, which I've enjoyed since my first time at his first restaurant in 1988, is quite a contrast to most Pho shop offerings. On one plate it looks like the BBQ beef topping of a dry cold noodle dish, like Bun Bo Nuong, but on the other it's the fixings of a bowl of Pho: a large bowl of beef broth with bundles of rice stick, a small plate of bean sprouts, slices of green chilis, and lemon or lime (depending on the season).

When I first heard the story from Minh about how his family got the recipe for that broth down -- a broth so special that I have friends in New York and London who come back to San Francisco just so that they can enjoy it again, and haven't been able to find anything close in all their travels -- I was completely blown over. Seems that when Ho Chi Minh came into power and stole Minh's family Bata shoe factory through nationalization of all independent companies, his grandfather was forced to make ends meet by running a small noodle shop out of the family home in Hanoi. And to beat the many other Hanoi residents who were forced into unemployment by the new Communist regime, and were competing with their own best Pho, he devised the recipe that is highly guarded, and rightly so, by Minh. But, I will give you a hint: The reason it's so good and so rich is its spice and consomé consistency! After having tried other restaurants where the broth looks like light soapy water, it's easy to understand why many come to San Francisco to enjoy New Loi's special Pho broth.

Some patrons like to stir the BBQ beef and shrimp into the soup, along with all the other garnishes. But, my preference is to mix the garnishes into the noodle soup, and then dip the beef or the shrimp in the nuoc cham that I specially request (nuoc cham is not normally served with pho), and then take a bite of noodles and spoon of broth. The change of tastes offers an ambrosial cornucopia.

Pho Ap Chao (sauteed beef, tomato, celery, leek and noodle soup, $4.95) then arrived and I think it was a winner and good close to the evening. The base was the special beef broth that makes up all of New Loi's phos. But, it was thickened and had wide rice noodle instead of the rice stick that normally comes in a pho. Its fresh garden combination of tomato, celery, and leek made it such a unique and special version of veggie-beef. Initially it's the tomato and leek that hit you, but then you sit back and the delicate flavor of the beef rolls in on your taste buds, and you'll think you've just been adopted into a Vietnamese family and their old auntie or grandmother has taken a great liking to you, making sure to remind you that your life was made to be bountiful and full of happiness.

If you would like to read about Cork Graham's adventure in Vietnam, click on his book cover.
Book Cover


Vardigan

Ditto. That's what I say after Cork's comprehensive and qualified assessment of New Loi's. I got off the L Taraval right in front of New Loi's, looked right in its windows, then walked two blocks trying to find it. That's how much I know about New Loi's. (In my boneheaded wandering I did come upon a place called the Chick-n-Coop. Intriguing. Can anyone tell me anything about the Chick-n-Coop?) Cork, on the other hand, is friends with New Loi's owner, friends enough that he made frequent dashes to the kitchen to tweak our order. That's how much Cork knows about New Loi's. A lot. Everything.

I'm still reeling, happily, from all the dishes and their different parts. Elaborate, some of these. Careful assembly involved. Cork has covered all this. I'll talk only about the Pho Tom Bo Nuong. I've always heard a lot about pho (pronounced fuh, I only now discover), and I've tasted a fuh-ew, but never had a spectacular one until New Loi's. The broth was so rich and savory I attacked it like it was the first course (it was the last). I also love the ritual of dumping stuff in -- sprouts, chilis, a squeezed lime. The broth alone is satisfying, but the bbq shrimp and beef make this bowl of soup a knockout. It's almost criminal.


McClure

I knew I loved Vietnamese cuisine, and now I know why. Well, I think I know why. Thanks to our guest judge, Cork Graham, I've had a lesson in food, culture, and the adventure.

Cork was most helpful in explaining the different aspects of Viet-chow. My understanding is another matter entirely. One thing I know is that I still consider Vietnamese grub one of my favorites. I especially enjoyed the explanation of the making of one of the tastiest dippin' sauces, nuoc man. All that pressed fish (anchovies, no less) and I'm hard pressed to find even a hint of fishiness. Oh well, I may never understand.

So, I took a bunch of notes during the meal and can come up with only a few general things to say. (It appears that that evening I could write in Vietnamese but for some reason I now cannot read it.) The meal was fantastic, the service good, and the company swell. For the blow by blow I defer to the master, Cork that is. Print out his food picks. Extensive I know, which my belly can attest to -- but all worth dining on.

 

Turner

Welp, looks like all three of us judges are going to have to step back and let someone who knows what they're talking about handle this one. Much thanks to Cork for hipping us to New Loi's, and for guiding us through a Vietnamese banquet the likes of which we've never gorged upon before.

I will say that I've never tasted any Vietnamese grub like most of this stuff. Even the imperial rolls are different. Must be the BLACK FUNGUS. Don't let that scare you, though. Think of it as a mushroom. A mushroom without a stem, I believe. Of particular note was the extremely festive and exotic Banh Cuon Tay Ho, which was almost too good looking to eat. But we overcame. The Banh Hoi Chao Tom Thit Nuong (like I know what I'm saying) was also great, the sugarcane shrimp and BBQ pork. Shrimp and pork!! Hoo boy. Something else that struck me was the freshness of ingredients and presentation. Mounds of glistening lettuce leaves, big sprigs of fresh mint and dill, peanuts, carrots, rice paper...all nicely presented for you, the happy eater, to assemble as you like. Kind of a family style, I guess, giving you some work to do, but it's fun.

The fact is, everything you see listed above by Cork was excellent and you should try them all. And whatever else is on the menu, because it seems Minh prepares it all with consummate skill.

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