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Tung Nguyen came to the United States in 1975, one of seventeen Vietnamese refugees sponsored by Kathy Manning through the St. James Lutheran Church in Coral Gables. Five years later the two women opened Hy Vong (which means "hope") on Eighth Street. The place became renowned for solid home-style Vietnamese cooking, a wait to get in, and interminable interludes between courses. Nguyen, Hy Vong's chef, recently left to open Tung Vietnamese Cuisine in Cutler Ridge. To fans of Hy Vong, this split has the sort of sorrowful associations that, depending on one's age, might bring to mind the breakup of Martin and Lewis, Simon and Garfunkel, or Milli and Vanilli. Truth is, there are now two neighborhoods in which to enjoy Nguyen's native Southeast Asian fare, because the menu at Tung is Hy Vong's virtual clone. Mercifully, there is no replication of the time spent on the dining experience. No lines have formed outside Tung Vietnamese Cuisine. None yet, anyway. And the thumb-twiddling between courses grows excruciating only when all 40 seats are filled (usually on weekends -- you've been warned).
Actually, I don't mind spending a couple of hours on a meal. Here in the United States, though, a nation where people pace the floor in front of microwave ovens, Nguyen's insistence on cooking food to order, by herself, coupled with slow and at times chaotic service, is bound to exasperate more than a few diners. Like the couple seated next to us during a recent visit. They waited fifteen minutes before a waiter came over to take their order, at which point they informed him they hadn't yet seen a menu. Another twosome turned to them and volunteered in a not-so-confidential tone that they had arrived an hour and a half earlier and were still waiting for their entrees. Everyone smiled and shook their heads in disbelief. "The food is good, though," one reluctantly admitted.
The food is good -- a simple, elemental take on traditional Vietnamese cooking. While successive foreign occupations have left Vietnam with a scarred landscape and a battered national pride, the invaders also bequeathed the country an enviable catalogue of culinary influences. Ten centuries of Chinese rule introduced stir-frying, deep-frying in a wok, soy sauce, bean curd, noodles, and chopsticks (the Vietnamese are the only people in Southeast Asia to use them). Mongolian forays during the Thirteenth Century brought meat dishes. Sixteenth-century European explorers planted seeds for the artichokes, cauliflower, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and peanuts that farmers of central Vietnam still grow today. A century of French domination left behind the techniques of breadmaking and a general refinement of existing baking and cooking. And finally, because of the United States's nasty involvement, the Vietnamese get to wash down all of this interesting and distinctive cuisine with a Pepsi.
The southern part of Vietnam, from where Nguyen hails, takes its strongest culinary cues from Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, all of which at one time or another have fallen under India's influence and have thus been introduced to the subcontinent's spices and curries. Nguyen's cooking, like that of her homeland, tends to assimilate foreign notions of food rather than merely imitate them. Both the Vietnamese and Thais, for instance, use ingredients such as fish sauce, shrimp paste, lemon grass, mint, basil, chili peppers, and curry, but the resulting dishes are quite different. Vietnamese curries in particular are less intense than those of other Southeast Asian nations, as is evident in Tung Vietnamese Cuisine's tame entree of curried shrimp and crab. The thin, mustard-color curry broth, though mellow, has a smooth, aromatic flavor that's fine; it's the rubberiness of the five slightly overcooked shrimp and the too-scarce smattering of lump crabmeat that mar this preparation.
Another scarcity is apparent here too. The Vietnamese consume an abundance of green vegetables, a practice learned from the Thais that has led to the development of a vegetarian cuisine incredible in its variety, complexity, and taste. Why then, in the name of Linda McCartney, is there not a single vegetarian entree on Tung's menu, nor any vegetables served as accompaniments?
I should talk. I grew up eating lean tongue sandwiches at kosher delis in New York City. But I've since licked that habit, and not even the appeal of being able to write about Tung tongue with ginger sauce could entice me into ordering it here. We opted for just about every other appetizer on the menu, starting with banh cuon, a.k.a. pork rolling cakes, a.k.a. pork dumplings -- two puffy bundles wrapped in rice noodles and floating in an ethereally light broth scattered with scallions, mint, and caramelized shallots.
Next up: spring rolls. The Vietnamese have a reputation for making the best ones in Asia. They roll their rice noodles so thin as to make them semitransparent, dry them outdoors on bamboo mats, and fill them with ground pork, water chestnuts, mushrooms, and slippery, gelatinous cellophane noodles. Just before they're fried, the rolls get brushed with sugar water, which makes for extra-crispy, golden-brown exteriors. Nguyen prepares her spring rolls in this manner and serves them in a traditional style -- with lettuce leaves, which the waiter encouraged us to wrap around the rolls in order to facilitate their handling. A dish of nuoc cham came on the side, a condiment used both as a dip and as a mild flavor-booster to be squirted into stir-fries and soups. (It blends so discreetly that you can barely detect its presence.) The main ingredient is nuoc mam, a pungent, salty sauce that is lighter than soy and is used in a similar fashion. (It's actually the liquid siphoned from long-fermenting fish, and is very high in Vitamin B and protein.) Add sugar, water, garlic, and lime juice, and we're back to nuoc cham, which is particularly well-suited to be a grease-cutting foil for the crackling fried skins of Tung's spring rolls.