Vietnamese Vittles in Virginia
May 23, 2010
Each year, I make a trek up to Manassas, Virginia to spend a weekend with several hundred teenagers… okay, get your minds out of the gutter…
I’ve been involved with a great program called the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) since it’s inception several years ago – this is a program aimed at teens to encourage them to learn more about science and engineering, and more specifically to get them to look at aerospace engineering as a career choice.
I’m actually going to do a long post about this soon, and yes, it does have a (surprising) food-related component to it!
At any rate, I, along with over one hundred other volunteers, make our way to Virginia each year to help run the finals of this event.
My great friend Bill the Dolphin usually meets me there, and it has become somewhat of a tradition that we eat Vietnamese food at a small place we found one of our first years there, and this year was no exception.
We started our repast by ordering a couple of “33” beers… must have the local beverages of whatever cuisine your having Bill insists… twist my damn arm…
First was “Butter Frog Legs” – according to the menu “These succulent frog legs are made with our seasonings for a taste you never forget”. Two large flattened pieces of meat, served atop onions and herbs were presented to us. Breaded and fried, I would not have recognized these as frog legs – and since there was no butter flavor or sauce, we determined that the “Butter” part of the title of the dish really meant “butterflied” and the translation was a bit less then perfect…
Now, if you haven’t had frog legs before, no, they don’t really taste “just like chicken”… but they are (at least to me) a bit like a cross between dark meat chicken and pork. They do have fairly small leg bones in them that you have to watch for, but over-all this was a nice plate, but nothing I’d say I have to have the next visit. Since Bill had never had frog, this was something new to him (and a new preparation for me).
Please dear readers, just don’t tell Tiana…
Our other appetizer was a real hit – Bill selected the “Fresh Autumn Rolls” – “A hearty and enticing combination exclusive to us. Grilled pork, half of spring roll, lettuce and rice vermicelli.” Two large cold rolls encased in rice paper had made their way to our table to join the now nearly-departed hoppers. About half of the innards contained the vermicelli, while down one side was the split fried spring roll and along another side was the cold grilled pork. A sweet dipping sauce was along for the ride. Filling and delicious, this was unlike any other spring-roll type item I’d had before. In fact, the next morning I was wishing we’d ordered a couple of those to go to have for breakfast! This I would for sure have again on my next trip back… and will look for something similar to try on my next Vietnamese dining excursion elsewhere… I hope it’s not really “exclusive” to just this restaurant!
Since the restaurant is named Pho Gourmet, we both decided on pho for our main courses (or at least part of our main course…). Pho, for those who don’t know, is a flavorful broth filled with various goodies – meats,veggies and lots of noodles. Usually it will be accompanied by sprouts, peppers and herbs to add to your bowl as your own tastes desire. It is probably the most popular and famous dish in Vietnamese cuisine.
I ordered a traditional beef-based one that included sliced eye-round steak, flank steak, fat brisket (pieces of fat, that is), soft tendon (which I was never exactly sure I found, or if I did had no idea what it was) and bible tripe (this I found…). The broth was rich, the nicely hot peppers and fresh basil on the side plate made good additions. I picked through the various meat items trying to identify (for good or for bad) them all… even the obvious innards were not strong tasting, and even the brisket fat wasn’t too “fatty” tasting after swimming in the broth and noodles. Some may not enjoy the texture of the included items, but I liked the variety (you can order many variations on the dish: just eye-round, or that and the flank, etc if you wish to avoid the intestinal items…).
Bill ordered the seafood pho, with “Big” shrimp, scallops and squid (and of course noodles) in a seafood broth.
Bill tasted the broth and I thought he was going to need a moment alone… I slid my spoon into his bowl for a taste myself… damn that was tasty stuff! These folks know how to make some soup!
There was a generous amount of the seafood in his dish, and we sat mostly in silence (which is a rare thing when Bill is around) other than the slurping and chewing as we throughly enjoyed our bowls of pho goodness. We had both ordered the “regular” size bowls, with Bill proffering the idea (especially considering the economical pricing of the entire menu) that we could also order another entree to share and be able to try something else (I like the way my friend thinks!). But even the regular size pho was a more than generous portion, so after both after the soup and appetizers (as well as several refills on the beers, of course) we feeling a bit full as we plowed into our “other” entree.
The “Caramel Pork in Hot Pot” caught Bill’s eye as the menu promised “Sliced pork and onions simmered in caramel sauce and black pepper” and was pronounced to be spicy (which my dining partner and I both favor). Served with rice on the side, the chewy pieces of pork were in a nicely sweet sauce, but neither of us detected much of the influence of the supposed black pepper, nor was it very spicy (which was easily remedied with a bit of the fresh hot peppers left from the pho and some of the ubiquitous sriracha sauce). It was an okay dish, but not great. This is an example of a time we should have asked for guidance from our server on what would have been our best spicy choice from the (probably overly) extensive menu.
Our server by the way was a very enthusiastic and attentive young man. Despite his thick accent and somewhat limited English, he did a wonderful job in seeing to our needs. Towards the end of our meal he asked us if we had been there before and we explained yes we had been there several times, but it had been once a year over the course of many years. He asked if we’d be coming back, and we told him yes we most certainly would – in another year, that is… I still don’t know if he quite got the concept, but he wished us well and I think he’ll be looking for us back sooner than we’ll be there (and I wish I could be eating there much more often!).
Also after we told him how much we had enjoyed the pho, and our likes for spicy dishes, he brought back a menu and recommended a dish (Pho Bo Kho, beef stew with carrots) to try on our next visit (or to also ask for at another Vietnamese place).
It was a great meal spent with a great friend – if you’re in the Manassas area stop by, have some good food and tell them hello (or whatever the Vietnamese equivalent if that is) from Eating and Drinking Around the World!
For the for Pho Gourmet website click here.
We’ll see you soon (or as soon as we can get around to it… so don’t sit there holding your breath) with details from my TARC weekend. Back to the kitchen!