The merry minority and her search for Vietnamesey goodness

3 Jan

Growing up, I often felt like the minority when I was at my best friend’s house. She lived across the street (I mentioned her in my cheater chopsticks post) with her mom, dad, brother, grandma and grandpa — and it was each member of the jolly Vietnamese family’s job to torture the white girl. Sometimes the bestie’s parents let her and the white girl watch horror movies (I don’t care what age you are, there’s nothing tender about Chucky). When we shot hoops at the local park and I missed, her dad would quip, “You’ve got to eaaat more”. And when the white girl did eat — at their house — and asked what was being served, the answer was always “fox” or “dog”.

The white girl must have provided years of amusement for the Nguyen family, whose poor Chippindale mug-toting mom cringed whenever her husband invited her, last-minute, to stay for dinner. It was only right, however, after years of taunting from the white girl’s bestie, who, when fighting, refused to translate her conversations with her then two year-old brother. Emotional scars be damned; back to the food…

Then, like now, I was an adventurous eater, so I’d proudly nosh on whatever the Nguyens served me. I relished telling my parents I’d eaten fox (English translation, by the way, is “pork”). I was obsessed with a dish consisting of salty fish over perfectly steamed rice (I still search for it and am now fairly certain it’s sautéed canned sardines in oil, which I stumbled upon at Nijiya Market off Convoy). To this day, I haven’t found Vietnamese food that rivals that of my early memories, but I try — Lord, I try.

Several years ago, while chasing the dream of my childhood cuisine, Pho Saigon Express in Escondido surfaced; then, I worked in that neck of the woods. Good for me, because the fox on rice was nearly as tasty as that which once hit my pre-teen palate. Now, Escondido’s too far off my personal grid for a quick bite, so I began my search again. Pho Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest became a strong contender; the pho is some of the best I’ve had in the area, but it’s still a minor haul for this Carmel Valley-ite. A few misses later and I found another win: Pho Ca Dao in Mira Mesa; both pho and fox on rice = very good. The lay-out is akin to that of a Fedco Cafeteria (dating myself?) I was back home — the minority, once again. This could be my pre-movie pho spot. For joy!

Then recently, Josh Kopelman, the ever hard-working publisher of Dining Out Magazineinvited a group of local food writers — myself included — to lunch at Mignon Pho + Grill, oh-so-conveniently located next to my lovely salty canned fish-carrying Nijiya.

Cute place, with pine-paneled walls and cement flooring. The music: American alternative. The food: legit. Like nearly all Vietnamese restaurants in San Diego, Mignon’s nibbles are indicative of Southern Vietnamese cuisine (most immigrants came here from the south). We shared an excessive amount of food (watching Josh order was a treat; I played air guitar with a phony stop watch, trying to cease him, but he kept on: beef tongue skewers, Hanoi skewers, papaya salad, spring rolls, bánh mi, pho, brown rice pho…PHEW! The man was relentless; how were we going to eat all of that food?

Well, for one, it was delicious — and #2: we were splitting. Friends, we polished it off pretty well.

So, a week or so ago, I took the hubs to try it out. He’s not a Vietnamese food cheerleader, so it’s always risky. Pho Ca Dao made the cut and, as it turns out, so did Mignon Pho. Coming up for air between first bites, he uttered: “Let’s take our family here this weekend.” There’s a first. Vietnamese fare never tops — or even makes — the list.

Right, so back to those dishes from our food writer gathering. Here’s a taste:

Papaya Salad
One of my favorite dishes of the day: a flavorful mound of julienned green papaya and spices tossed in a sweet vinegar-based dressing and topped with fresh basil.

Beef Tongue Skewers

Friend and food writer Caron Golden of San Diego Foodstuff and I questioned whether these were really tongue. No distinct tongue flavor, but also no reason for the restaurant owners and chef to call them what they aren’t. So, I took the restaurant’s word at face value and noshed on these puppies (not foxes, mind you) like they were going out of style. Powerful flavor and downright tasty.

California Banh Mi
Fried egg and garlic french fries atop a moist grilled pork cutlet, all stuffed into a baguette. This was a favorite of Maria Montana of San Diego Food Finds, who dined across from me.

Shrimp Carpaccio Tom Chua
I might have named this incorrectly. What I ate — and loved — was a plate of tangy, slightly spicy sesame oil-marinated shrimp on an airy rice cake. Delicious.

Grilled Squid/Muc Nuong
Lightly seasoned squid, grilled to order. Thanks be for the tentacles — always my favorite part.

We had two types, both excellent, but the one that quietly chants in my mind was made with brown rice noodles — great for gluten-free gluttons and all eaters. The noodles in both pho dishes were cooked perfectly al dente and slid like velvet into the mouth and down the throat. Craveable.

With a slew of Viet-successes under my belt, I’ll continue my salty fish journey, driven by yesteryears and fueled by the food I meet along the way. As usual, the path is as divine as the pinnacle.

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