Monday, March 22, 2010

Pho Bang Restaurant

Vietnamese cuisine lives in a niche unoccupied by either Chinese or Thai cooking. Arguably the least divers of the three in terms of the ingredients and methods of preparation, it nevertheless can hold its own quite successfully. The flavors tend to be fresher, lighter and less complicated. Great emphasis is given to fresh vegetables and herbs. And there is of course fish sauce, a fragrant and tangy staple of Vietnamese cooking.

It is said that Vietnamese cooking is greatly influenced by Buddhist philosophy in general, and by the principles of five elements in particular. Vietnamese dishes tend to appeal to all five senses. The food presentation is colorful and attractive to the eye. The sound of crispness of fresh vegetables appeal to the ear. The combination of five spices, commonly used in Vietnamese cooking are detected by the tongue, and their aroma occupy senses of smell. The tactile experience is conveyed through the inner and outer texture of the ingredients.

Pho bang Restaurant - has got to be one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants in New York. Located at 157 Mott St (between Grand & Broome St), along what used to be the border between swanky Soho and trashy Chinatown. Surprisingly, the place still has that old-school cafeteria vibe, complete with the elderly matriarch behind the counter, often shared communal tables, and still decent prices. The waiters, depending on a set of mysterious factors known only to them, might treat you either good or bad, but the food is consistently excellent.

My favorite is Banh Hoi Thit Bo Lui, poetically translated as grilled beef with sesame seasoning and rice thread. On the table the dish looks as good if not better than it sounds. It's a virtuosic exercise in color and flavor combination. First arrives a plate of lettuce and mint leaves, followed by a smaller plate of rice thread sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Rice thread is a thin square pancake made up of narrow rice noodles lightly packed together. Then comes a dish of dipping sauce, fresh cucumber and do chua - pickled carrots and daikon. Finally service culminates with a plate of fragrant grilled beef. Thin strips of beef, about an inch and a half wide, are rolled up into barrels about the thickness of a hot dog, marinated and grilled to perfection.

You are supposed to combine all ingredients and roll them up into a lettuce leaf. It usually takes me thirty seconds or so to ascertain the situation and to devise the best way to tackle the problem of wrapping. And I have to warn you - it's not an easy task. Things tend to unravel. The meat always slips out and cucumber and carrot sticks out in every direction after the first bite. First I thought the trick lies in the order of ingredients, but experiments have proved me wrong. Now it seems like it's the combination of packing and wrapping that holds the key. But I will soldier on until I get it . I have seen the Vietnamese do it. I know it's possible!

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