The Missing Fish Mint
Bo nuong xa, a dish of grilled lemongrass-marinated beef served with rice-paper wrappers, goes by the popular name of Vietnamese fajitas in Houston. When you order it at Nam Vietnamese Cuisine on Fondren, you get thin slices of beef cooked well done and delivered hot to your table. On the side, there's a plate of cold lettuce, cucumbers, shredded carrots, fresh mint and cilantro. On another plate, you get the sheets of wet rice paper, conveniently stretched out on pink Ping-Pong-paddle-shaped plastic dividers to keep them from sticking together.
The dish is called Vietnamese fajitas because you roll the beef and vegetables up in the rice paper and dunk the package in the dipping sauce. The contrast between the hot beef and the cold herbs, along with the roll-your-own format, makes this a local favorite. At Nam the dish is tasty, though not nearly as exotic as the original.
The differences between the Vietnamese fajitas at Nam and the version you find at Vietnamese restaurants down on Bellaire Boulevard illustrate the dilemma that Houstonians face when it comes to picking a Vietnamese restaurant. Where do you draw the line on authenticity?
At a restaurant stall called Bo 7 Mon (Beef 7 Ways) in the food court at Hong Kong City Mall, the bo nuong xa looks a lot different. First of all, the marinated beef comes to the table raw. The server sets up a butane burner and an iron skillet on your table and you cook the meat yourself. You can make it as rare as you like. But the main advantage is that you can prepare the meat as you need it, so every piece stays piping hot.
Unfortunately, they don't use the pink Ping-Pong paddles for the rice-paper sheets at Bo 7 Mon. Recently, after shredding a couple into confetti, I took the pile back to the proprietor and told her I couldn't get them apart. "Take it easy!" was her advice. With the sort of attention required to thread a needle, she found a seam and proceeded to slowly and carefully pull sheets of rice paper off the pile. That may be the authentic way to serve rice-paper wrappers, but it's way too high a difficulty level for novices like me.
The herbs are another big difference. At restaurants like Bo 7 Mon that cater to a Vietnamese clientele, the lemongrass beef comes with cilantro, mint, basil and "Hawaiian leaf," which is purple on one side and green on the other, with a pepper-and-cinnamon flavor. There's also a heart-shaped leaf called vap ca, or "fish mint" in English. The aroma of this herb is shockingly weird to most Anglos. Some say it smells fishy; others say it smells like a rusty cast-iron skillet. Personally, I enjoy the funkiness of it when it's combined with other herbs on a beef roll. But a lot of my friends want nothing to do with it.
The authentic Vietnamese restaurants on Bellaire near Beltway 8 are fun for adventurous diners. But people who don't speak Vietnamese will always find it difficult to figure everything out. And they will often be surprised by strange flavors. Nam, on the other hand, is a Vietnamese restaurant for Anglos. Even the furnishings, which look to be Early American, indicate an attempt to make suburbanites feel at home.
Everything on the menu is in clear English, and the seasonings have been toned down to mainstream tastes. The problem is, tastes have changed in the 17 years since Nam opened. Everybody expects some chiles and some stinky fish sauce in their Vietnamese food these days. Relics like Nam's egg-drop soup and unspicy curry are beginning to taste bland and old-fashioned, even to Grandma and the youngsters.
"Here, I thought you'd want some chopsticks and some rice bowls, since you're trying to be so Asian and all," the young waitress said with a giggle as she gave them to my friend and me. This was our comeuppance for being know-it-alls.
I'd asked about the sparse assortment of herbs that came with the lemongrass beef. And she'd acted like she'd never heard of fish mint. My friend had interrupted her belabored description of rare tenderloin beef cubes over a salad to ask her if she was talking about bo luc lac, perhaps the most common Vietnamese dish in Houston.
The teenage waitress turned out to be the daughter of Nam's owners. A high school student in Sugar Land, she charmed us with her bubbly enthusiasm and friendly style of service. But our questions set her off.
"How do Vietnamese people eat this?" my friend asked her, trying to figure out if the dish called pork in clay pot was meant to be eaten out of the pot or spooned over rice.
"There is no right or wrong way to eat," the waitress answered.
"Well, how do they eat it in the South?" he asked.
"You mean South Vietnam? I have no idea," she said pointedly and walked away.
The pork had been cooked for a long time in a thick, sweet sauce until the meat fell apart. It might have been a great dish with some other flavors to balance out the sweetness. I found myself wondering what the same dish might taste like at a more authentic restaurant. And I also wondered about the waitress.
Her behavior reminded me of my mother and sociological theories about the assimilationist second generation in immigrant families. My grandmother, who was an immigrant from Eastern Europe, packed my mother's lunch with sandwiches on homemade bread. My mother begged her to stop baking and instead to buy Wonder Bread so she could be like the other kids at school. I suspect our waitress is going through some similar second-generation angst, which is why she finds Anglos who seek authentic Vietnamese food, fumble with chopsticks and try to pronounce Vietnamese words ludicrous.
Nam's menu, which is written entirely in English, exhibits similar white-bread tendencies. It skips such favorite Vietnamese ingredients as jellyfish, cuttlefish and goat. And it includes Americanized Chinese restaurant glop like sweet-and-sour chicken and fried wontons filled with cream cheese.
"Any hot, spicy dish may be modified according to your taste," reads a disclaimer on Nam's menu. On our second visit, we attempted to get some hot and spicy food -- to no avail.
"I want it really, really hot," my tablemate told the waitress while looking over the chicken dishes. Vietnamese chicken was the hottest chicken dish available, we were told. It came coated with garlic, and there were some jalapeño slices on the plate. But the heat was barely discernible unless you sucked on the peppers. The curry shrimp was equally disappointing. The thick, yellow Chinese-restaurant curry had no heat and barely any flavor. We also tried Nam's minimalist bo luc lac, which seemed to be nothing but tenderloin chunks coated with tiny garlic granules served on romaine leaves with a few sautéed onions. Though we missed the tomatoes and other salad items, the beef was perfectly cooked.
The best thing I tried at Nam was the fried squid, which was served over a salad with a dipping sauce you make yourself by squeezing a lemon wedge into a saucer over a pile of salt and pepper. Sadly, the dish reminded me of the fried cuttlefish at A Dong, which had long been my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. A Dong closed recently when the owner decided to retire.
Nam will not be replacing A Dong as my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. But if you are one of those Houstonians who don't enjoy driving to Chinatown to eat in grubby hole-in-the-wall joints where nobody speaks English, then Nam may be the place for you. It's a clean and attractive Vietnamese restaurant not far from the Galleria that serves well-prepared (if underseasoned) Asian food, and where English is spoken fluently. If you go, I suggest you not bother asking for chopsticks.
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