Just like albums, restaurants often have "Deep Cuts," unexpected gems buried in their menus, overlooked for the more readily accessible and better known dishes. Often, it's the mere lack of familiarity, itself, that keeps these dishes unfamiliar. We are largely creatures of habit, after all, and many are far more comfortable simply ordering what they know. Again, as with songs, these "deep cuts" are frequently the more interesting and rewarding compositions on a menu.
Back in May, Mai Pham referenced a few of these semi-obscure menu items while writing about good introductory dishes for Vietnamese cuisine. I eat Vietnamese food quite often; my kids are phở junkies. I seem to get stuck in ruts, though, ordering the same handful of dishes over and over again. When Mai came out swinging so strongly for Cá Kho Tộ, calling it one of her "favorite traditional Vietnamese dishes that require a more adventuresome palate," I decided I had to check it out.
I can see why some would find the dish daunting by description, alone. "Fish simmered with fish sauce in clay pot" sounds like it could be a pungent, almost violently fishy affair. A lover of fish sauce, to me it just sounded not all that interesting. Neither assumption could be further from the truth.
When I was presented with the steaming, bubbling crock, I knew I'd made the right decision. Huge chunks of catfish (I'm pretty sure they folded an entire fish into that tiny pot) glistened with a viscous, reddish-brown sauce, forming a layer of sticky and slightly crunchy edges around the sides of the vessel. The aroma that wafted up at me was intoxicating. It smelled deeply savory and earthy, with hints of beef and mushrooms coming across much more stridently than the fishy smell you would expect.
Thanks to the caramelization involved, it also smelled nutty and sweet. All of these flavors comingled in the dish, resulting in an amazingly complex array of flavors; salty, sweet, savory, and all of the shades in between. As far as being intimidating, I tried the dish out on my wife and kids to see how they'd take it. My wife and one of my daughters get squeemish about seafood and "weird food" sometimes, so I figured they'd be good test cases. All agreed it was delicious. They had a bit of an issue with the fish skin, which takes on a pleasantly chewy texture, here.
After the ample portion of fish was done, I soaked the remaining sauce up with bits of rice, not wanting to lose any of that amazing flavor. I wished I'd had a nice hunk of bread for the occasion. Since then, I've been scheming on other applications for this recipe, substituting willy-nilly for the more traditional catfish. Pork Belly simmered with fish sauce in a clay pot? Come to papa.
I probably would have gotten around to ordering this on my own, sometime, but I owe a debt of gratitude to Mai for pushing me toward what is almost certainly my new favorite Vietnamese dish. Next time you're out to eat, particularly at a restaurant serving a cuisine with which you are not fully familiar, stray off the beaten path, and you are likely to find something unexpectedly delicious. The deep cuts are out there, and they're worth a listen.
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