Street/19th Ave., SF
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.
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
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.
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
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
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!
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
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.
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
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.
you would like to read about Cork Graham's adventure in Vietnam, click
on his book cover.
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.
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.
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.