First, you squeeze the lemon into the saucer that contains the salt, pepper and preserved plum powder. Then you snatch up a hot square of fried seafood along with a little of the watercress, tomato and onion salad underneath. You give the hot seafood and cold salad a quick dunk into the salty lemon-plum dip on the way to your mouth. And then you say: "Oh, baby, baby!" with your mouth full.
The fried cuttlefish salad is by far the most popular item on the menu at A Dong, a plain-Jane Vietnamese restaurant on Bellaire just west of the Sam Houston Tollway. The menu cryptically translates the name of the dish, muc rang muoi, as "salted sautéed cuttlefish with Vietnamese style."
Cuttlefish is a relative of squid and octopus. If you've ever had a parakeet, you may remember hanging up a white oval cuttlefish bone in the cage. The meaty body that remains after the bone is removed is cut into squares and deep-fried, not sautéed as the menu suggests. Maybe the "salted" part of the name refers to the dip served on the side. But there can be no argument that the dish has a whole lot of "Vietnamese style." It is, in fact, among the best Vietnamese dishes in the city. And that's not just my opinion.
"Vietnamese people don't have one favorite restaurant, they have a favorite dish at a lot of restaurants," a kindly Vietnamese gentleman told me one afternoon at Parisian Bakery II & Café, a spectacular Vietnamese-French bakery at Beechnut and Wilcrest in the Beechnut Plaza shopping center. My colleague Paul Galvani and I had stopped in to sample the banh mi thit, as Vietnamese sandwiches are known in their native language (see "Desperately Seeking Sandwiches," September 20, 2001).
Not only was the banh mi thit excellent, but the Vietnamese family at the next table was quite informative. After we discussed the merits of various banh mi thit outlets, I asked them about Vietnamese restaurants in general. The cuttlefish at A Dong was one of their favorites. "But you wouldn't like A Dong. You should go to Tay Do," the man told me.
"Why?" I wanted to know.
He explained that Tay Do, in the Hong Kong City Mall at 9600 Bellaire, is a lovely Vietnamese restaurant that's more comfortable for Westerners. A Dong, on the other hand, is kind of dumpy, and nobody speaks English there. I proceeded immediately to A Dong and ordered the cuttlefish.
I also tried Tay Do, which I found pleasant. The interior is appointed with dramatic light fixtures and lots of elegant flourishes. The risotto is also better than average, but the curry goat tasted blander than a Yankee pot roast.
A Dong, on the other hand, is a restaurant I have come to love. I've been back at least a half-dozen times, often with out-of-town guests in tow. The biggest problem at A Dong is what to order besides the cuttlefish.
In my visits I have thrown darts at quite a few menu sections. Rice noodles in broth with pork or the shrimp and fish balls make a nice lunch, as long as you add lots of sriracha and soy sauce. Egg noodles with slivers of sweet barbecue pork and wontons aren't a bad noon meal, either. But there are lots of places to get a bowl of noodles much closer to home.
The frog risotto in a clay pot was a bust -- too many little bones. The expensive seafood hot pot was a big disappointment, too. It was essentially hot water and seafood, served on a tabletop butane burner. I never did quite understand the attraction of going to a restaurant and cooking your own soup.
But lau cary de, the curry goat hot pot, was very good. It's a gigantic portion of goat meat still on the bone, simmered in a spicy cinnamon-scented curry sauce and served with lots of rice on the side. You could probably feed a family of four with this dish. But you can get the same thing in a smaller dose at A Dong by the name of ca ri de under "house specialties." This presentation features the tasty goat curry in a small bowl, served with rice and a baguette on the side.
The baguette, or banh mi, is, of course, a cultural crossover from Vietnam's many years as a French colony. When I was researching the article about Vietnamese sandwiches, I came across an item that said banh mi thit stands in Ho Chi Minh City sometimes serve sandwiches filled with curry. The idea has intrigued me ever since. When I was first served curry goat with a baguette at A Dong, I was tempted to slice the bread down the middle and make myself a curry sandwich. The bones kept me from trying. But I discovered that a piece of baguette dunked into A Dong's spicy curry sauce is a pleasure unto itself.
My waitress at lunch the other day recommended a chopped steak salad called bo luc lac. "You mean rock 'n' roll beef?" I laughed.
"Yeah, that's it," she said. Lots of Westerners refer to bo luc lac as rock 'n' roll beef over at Tay Do, she told me. It turned out the waitress worked at both Tay Do and A Dong, and the two restaurants are owned by the same family. "This is my aunt's place and that's my uncle's," she said. Tay Do has a lot more dishes, but A Dong attracts more Vietnamese people.
I tried the bo luc lac at A Dong, and it was excellent. But it comes over the exact same watercress, tomato and onion salad as the cuttlefish with the same salt, pepper and dried plum powder dip on the side. Unfortunately, the two dishes are too similar to order together.
I'd say stick with the curry goat and baguette as the No. 2 dish in the winter. But in the heat, I'd encourage you to take a walk on the wild side with A Dong's "summer delight." This exquisite salad of chilled shrimp, pork and jellyfish, mixed with cucumber spears, shredded carrot, lettuce, red onion and crunchy fried garlic, comes with refreshing sweet fish sauce dressing and a plate of crunchy shrimp chips.
Jellyfish only sounds weird. In fact, the julienned transparent strips taste like square rice noodles, but with a hint of crunch when you bite them. I like to squirt a healthy dose of sriracha pepper sauce over the top of this salad for a sweet-hot rush. It's really great to load up a crunchy shrimp chip with the salad and eat it like some sort of Vietnamese nacho. Beer served Vietnamese-style over a glass full of ice cubes is the perfect accompaniment.
Luckily, I don't have to temper these recommendations with a description of A Dong's appearance. A year and a half ago, when I first visited, the restaurant was pretty drab. Since then, the interior has been remodeled. The walls are now covered with semiattractive artwork, and new window treatments have been added. Last month, they installed brand-new wall-to-wall carpet. Okay, the aquarium is still thick with algae, but you can't have everything.
Take the advice of my Vietnamese sandwich-eating friend. If you're looking for an attractive restaurant with a large Vietnamese-Chinese menu, try someplace else -- like Tay Do in the Hong Kong City Mall. But if you're an Asian-food aficionado in search of a few stellar dishes, put A Dong on your short list. You can't beat it for fried cuttlefish salad or a jellyfish summer delight.
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