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That almost subconscious association probably helps explain why I like to take fellow writers to dinner -- poets, novelists, and nonfiction writers (published or just plain hoping to be) are frequently my restaurant review companions. Like the works they create, they're excellent company, indulging in extravagant body language and spicy phrasing, punctuating dishes with stories, embellishing. Plus, they're open to trying just about anything -- especially when someone else pays for it.
So when John Balaban -- poet, novelist, nonfiction writer, and director of the University of Miami's creative writing program -- told me about a Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant called Mekong in Cutler Ridge, I leapt at the chance to visit the place with him and his family.
When Balaban recommends a Vietnamese restaurant, I listen. He journeyed to that country during the war, a self-described "moral witness" who worked for a medical relief agency that bore the awesome responsibility of transporting wounded Vietnamese children to the States. His memoir, Remembering Heaven's Face, is a profoundly humane account of an inhuman war.
Profundity aside, Balaban's translating skills came in quite handy at the 40-seat Mekong, which for the past sixteen months (a tattered "Grand Opening" sign still waves from the roof) has plied its culinary trade in a nondescript niche in a nondescript strip mall on South Dixie Highway in Cutler Ridge. On his recommendation, we avoided the Chinese selections entirely, giving our undivided attention to the back page of the menu, starting with a variety of spring rolls, all of which are served in pairs. Deep-fried cha gio, considered the national dish of Vietnam and certainly one of the most familiar to Westerners, were tasty, slender, rice-paper wrappers filled with egg, vegetables, minced pork, and shrimp (the last ingredient a variation on the traditional crab). Goi cuon and bi cuon utilized resilient rice paper but were spared the fryer. Wrapped like soft tacos, the goi cuon burst with a cool shrimp and pork salad, while bi cuon relied on steamed pork for their predominant flavor. Peanuts, fragrant fresh coriander and basil leaves, and slippery rice vermicelli rounded out the interiors. Nuoc cham, the indispensable sweet-and-sour dipping sauce that the Vietnamese use like ketchup, and a denser peanut-flavored sauce accompanied all the rolls.
Banh cuon cha lua, noodle cake with pork, was sheets of steamed rice noodles arranged over a filling of minced tofu, then topped with slices of a processed pork roll that resembled bologna but had a milder flavor. A dusting of chopped nuts added some complexity. But the highlight of the appetizer selection was green papaya salad, goi du du. The Vietnamese pride themselves on the julienne strips of vegetables that garnish their salads and use a "grater box," an inexpensive plastic device similar to a French mandoline, to achieve these results. Here the papaya (a relative of the sweet variety, with a lime-sherbet cast and a firm, cucumberlike texture) had been uniformly shredded and flavored with chopped peanuts, fresh coriander, and chilies so hot it made you sweat just to look at them. Whole shrimp interspersed throughout provided a welcome counterpoint to the palate-punching spice.
The platters of sizzling beef we spied on neighboring tables looked and smelled delicious, but although the Chinese selections far outnumbered the Vietnamese, they sounded mundane by comparison, so we resolved to stay the Mekong course for the entrees. And we were rewarded. Pho, Vietnamese rice noodle soups, are huge bowls that would easily suffice for dinner (in Vietnam they're often consumed for breakfast), but in the interest of less slurpy sharing, we ordered a bowl of bun, rice noodles without broth. Slices of crunchy fried spring rolls, boneless pork, stalks of scallions, and leaves of Asian basil and coriander added color and heat. Nuoc cham and its main ingredient, the far more potent nuoc mam (fish sauce made from fermented salted anchovies that are dried on rooftops all over Vietnam, Balaban told us) gave crucial flavor-enhancement.
Lemon-grass chicken needed no enhancement. The aromatic herb, often overwhelming, was handled deftly here, lacing the light sauce that coated tender boneless strips of chicken as well as a host of bright vegetables -- broccoli, peppers, onions, celery, and bok choy. Like the lemon-grass sauce, the homemade barbecue sauce coating suon ram man (baby ribs) was rich in flavor. But the main event had been chopped into pieces so small it was impossible to tell if there was any meat on the bone. More often than not, there wasn't.
In direct contrast to the skimpy ribs, tom rang muoi was worth feature-length attention. Showcase-quality shrimp, outstandingly fresh, were served shell-on in a semi-sticky garlic sauce. To fully savor the coating, the shrimp were best consumed like soft-shell crab, Balaban advised, without regard for body armor. Like the ribs, this entree was served sans vegetables. But then, it needed no distractions. (The surroundings, incidentally, threaten no distraction whatsoever -- the restaurant is little more than chairs and tables in a long, narrow room, with a tank of live seafood bubbling near the door. Dinner is served on plastic plates. But it was precisely this lack of atmosphere, so similar to that of Saigon eateries, that attracted Balaban in the first place.)
Unwilling, perhaps, to acknowledge the culinary influence of the Chinese on Vietnam, Mekong owner Phil Nguyen employs Chinese chefs as well as Vietnamese, with each chef cooking his own nation's cuisine. "That way they don't mess up," he insists. He enjoys filling Cutler Ridge's demand for Asian restaurants of quality but seems hesitant about going solo with the layered flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. The cultural duality is a draw in itself.
Candy Plessonti, owner of Cutler Ridge's Chopsticks House, would agree with him. The Thailand-born Plessonti opened her 30-seat Chinese/Thai restaurant with her daughter-in-law Noi thirteen months ago in the newly rebuilt Old Cutler Towne Center, deliberately working the double-demand angle. Manager Jerry Zaks acknowledges that "the market did need some Chinese" and that many elements of the two cuisines can, as he puts it, "interchange." But the Thai chefs in the kitchen prepare separate special sauces, doing their best to keep the cuisines separate.
Still, in an interesting reversal from the Chinese/Vietnamese gastronomic relationship, at Chopsticks House the Thai influences the Chinese, rather than vice versa. Which explained the fabulous black bean sauce we enjoyed over beef, less salty and a little thinner than the Chinese norm and highlighting the pungent soybeans rather than soy sauce. Crisp peppers and onions further anointed the beef, which was wonderfully tender but had been cut against the grain.
Spring rolls were the only appetizer we chose from the Chinese menu, but this pair of crunchy, greaseless snacks was clearly Thai: finely shredded white cabbage, carrots, and celery steamed fragrantly in rice-skin wrappers. The same sweet, vinegary plum sauce that accompaniwed the spring rolls came with gai kra-bueng, slightly slimmer but similar deep-fried chicken-stuffed fingers from the Thai menu.
Larb tofu was a tasty take on bean curd, chopped and marinated with lime juice, fresh mint, and scallions, then dusted with rice powder and thrown in the deep fryer. The result was crisp-skinned nuggets of melting-hot tofu, served on a bed of shredded cabbage and carrots. Tom kar gai soup, the only disappointment among the starters we tried, contained pieces of too-dry white-meat chicken and a coconut-milk thickener that was watery, lacking substance. Though tiny straw mushrooms were beautiful and lacked that million-years-in-a-can flavor and galangal (ginger) root and lime juice provided a necessary sharp tingle, they weren't enough to save the soup.
A judicious use of ginger elevated pla jearn, boneless deep-fried whole snapper. We had a few bones to pick with the fish, however, and it was just slightly overdone. Still, the sauce, a perfumey blend of ginger, onions, scallions, carrots, and mushrooms, more than made up for those flaws. Shrimp, pink as flamingos and curled cozily in a row along the large snapper, provided a generous touch as well.
We also sampled a platter of assorted seafood in homemade chili paste. Punchy with garlic, the sauce was fabulous, embracing a variety of freshly sauteed shrimp, scallops, squid, and chunks of fish. A confetti of bell peppers, onions, celery, and carrots gave body to all the succulence.
Pad Thai was a spicier-than-normal version, which we greatly appreciated. The rice noodles were perfectly cooked, and were adorned with the customary ground peanuts, egg, scallions, and bean sprouts. (The dish can be ordered plain, or with pork, chicken, or shrimp.) It also made an excellent alternative to rice as a bed for gang pak, mixed vegetables in a red curry and coconut milk sauce. Unlike in the tom kar gai, the coconut milk here was in exact proportion to the complex spicing. Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and onions) bloomed with just-steamed appeal, proving that manager Zaks's assertion about restocking the vegetable bins daily was no empty boast.
A combination of comfort and casual elegance, this restaurant features upholstered chairs, tablecloths, and fine folk artwork imported from China and northern Thailand. Of course, the starving poet I brought with me to Chopsticks House had no spare eye for the walls, keeping his focus firmly fixed on his plate. He reminded me of another reason I like dining with writers, especially when the meal is truly delicious: the pleasure of seeing them, for a change, at a loss for words.