In my dining series exploring the concentration of Vietnamese dining in Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood, I write much about how Southeast Asian cuisine is tuned to a hot-sour-salty-sweet symphony. Depending on the dish or the palate of the chef creating it, flavors will broadcast varying degrees of salty-sour or sweet-spicy. You know you’re in good hands if a dish sings in perfect tune and you can taste each component in harmony.
Say what, again? All that might sound confusing if you’re a Vietnamese dining neophyte. To help those who’ve never sampled the cuisine, I’ve got a quick guide to get you started. Read on.
Five dishes to try
Pho: A volcanic concoction of bubbling broth flavored with anise, garlic and ginger. The soup is laden with thinly sliced meats and rice noodles. One of the most popular Vietnamese culinary exports, it’s pronounced “fuh.” Variations range from beef to chicken, vegetable and tofu. It’s the most common Vietnamese culinary export and easy to find anywhere. If you’re a first-time diner, try Vien Dong at 3801 Yakima Ave., Tacoma, 253-472-6668.
Banh mi: A merge of Vietnamese and French cuisine, banh mi is crusty French baguettes toasted and stuffed with marinated meats, pickled vegetables, cilantro and jalapenos. Often served with a smear of mayo or pate. It’s pronounced “bon me.” If you’re a first-time diner, try Huong Que Deli, 3813 S. Yakima St., Tacoma, 235-476-7805 (note: this restaurant is cash only).
Bun mang vit: This mixed cabbage salad includes roasted duck, fried shallots, peanuts, mint and other fresh herbs and pickled vegetables served with an intensely flavored ginger vinaigrette called nuoc mam gung. The dish is accompanied by a mild noodle soup topped with dried bamboo shoots. If you’re a first-time diner, try Pho Dragon at 757 S. 38th St., Tacoma, 253-472-6153.
Bun thit nuong: This mixed bowl contains rice noodles, marinated grilled pork, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and a vinaigrette called nuoc cham. Other versions come in chicken, with fried egg rolls, shrimp or beef. If you’re a first-time diner, try Nhu Thuy at 758 S. 38th St., Tacoma, 253-474-3992.
Goi cuon: Rice wrappers are rolled up with rice noodles, thinly sliced barbecue pork, sometimes sliced shrimp, and fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro or basil. Served with a peanut dipping sauce. If you’re a first-time diner, try 38th St. Deli/Deli 38 at 750 S. 38th St., Tacoma, 253-475-0684.
How do you say that, again?
Now for the pronunciation. If you find the words don’t flow off your tongue, you’re not alone. In researching how to pronounce so many of the dishes, I stumbled upon a wonderful guide at San Francisco Weekly. Click here for their audio translation that will help you say pho, banh mi and goi cuon – with ease.
Trying something new: Chanh Muoi
So you’ve conquered pho, banh mi and goi cuon. Want to take your love of Vietnamese to the next level? Here’s something to try – the salty lemonade drink chanh muoi. In Tacoma, my favorite destination for the drink is Huong Que Deli (3813 S. Yakima St., Tacoma). There, you’ll find a long list of Vietnamese drinks, including pennywort and other lemon and lime concoctions. They’ve also got bubble tea.
Chanh muoi is a curious drink – it’s salty, sweet and puckery beyond any lemonade you’ve ever tasted. It’s made by combining salted, preserved lemons with hot water. The lemon is muddled and sugar is added. Then, the drink is topped with ice and water. On a hot day, the drink offers a refreshing experience like no other, tweaking the sour-salty flavor combination until it’s almost painful. To prepare your palate, think of chanh muoi as something in the same family as Middle Eastern preserved lemon, only with a heck of a lot more salt.
When ordering it at Huong Que ($3), you’ll see a counter worker dig into a jar filled with slightly browned lemons. Those lemons have been preserved for months using salt. The recipe is pretty simple – I have some aging at home right now – combine halved or quartered lemons and limes with salt in a sanitized jar. Seal it, leaving room at the top. Then, you let the jar sit. And sit and sit. The recipe I’m trying suggests a three-month wait. Here’s a picture from early March when I packed my first batch. I made them in all kinds of configurations – lemons, limes, some with basil. I’ll let you know in June how they turn out.