VIET­NAMESE CUI­SINE AT ITS BEST

The Sun Herald - - Marque - BY JU­LIAN BRUNT

Walk into Soc Trang and you will be greeted by ro­man­tic love songs and bal­lads, a mu­sic style pop­u­lar in the Viet­namese com­mu­nity. It’s a good first im­pres­sion. It’s not a big restau­rant, barely a dozen ta­bles, and even though it is barely a month old, there’s quite a lunch crowd on the day of my visit. It’s al­ways an­other good sign.

If you are new to the Viet­namese ex­pe­ri­ence, you are in for a very spe­cial ad­ven­ture. Su­per chef An­thony Bour­dain called Viet­nam one of his fa­vorite places on Earth, and de­scribed pho, the beef noo­dle soup that is the na­tional dish of this South­east Asian coun­try, “a bowl of steam­ing good­ness.” In my opin­ion, you could not ask for a bet­ter rec­om­men­da­tion.

For new­bies, the ar­ray of condi­ments on the ta­ble may be cause for be­muse­ment, but don’t worry. Op­tions and add-ons are a big part of this amaz­ing cui­sine. Soy sauce will be no sur­prise, but fish sauce, sriracha, hoisin, pick­led jalapenos and, at least at Soc Trang, a de­light­fully spicy chili sauce, home­made by the way, all wait to be tried, but don’t just start adding dol­lops of this and that! Take your time, and try a lit­tle of the chili sauce, stir it in and then taste. Pro­ceed with cau­tion! Too much of some­thing just might ruin that mag­nif­i­cent bowl of pho you or­dered.

The menu is quite large, but it is com­posed of the ba­sics, just served in dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions: rice, noo­dles, fried rice, com­bined with veg­eta­bles, chicken, seafood, pork and beef. It’s a sim­ple idea, but the magic of Viet­namese cui­sine is in the crunchy, never overcooked veg­eta­bles that make for a con­trast in tex­ture, hearty noo­dles or steamed white rice, and sauces that are rich, spicy and en­dowed with a de­light­ful depth of fla­vor, lay­ered, you might say. The re­sult is hearty, de­li­cious, fill­ing and nu­tri­tious.

If this is your first Viet­namese ex­pe­ri­ence go for the pho ($9-$12). There are nine op­tions but stay ba­sic: Rare beef will be a great in­tro­duc­tion. No, don’t freak out, the beef is added raw to the hot soup and cooks it be­fore it gets to the ta­ble. If you are not into beef, the chicken pho is pretty amaz­ing, if not al­to­gether tra­di­tional.

I am a huge fan of what this cul­ture can do with noo­dles (don’t you dare think Ital­ian pasta, not even close) and I do love rice noo­dles in all their guises, but just to be con­trary I tried com­bi­na­tion chow mein (stir-fried noo­dles). Yes, I do know chow mein are Chi­nese, but what this place does with this dish is killer good. Lovely, tooth­some noo­dles, crunchy car­rots, shrimp, mush­rooms, baby car­rots, beef, and an­other stun­ning sauce. A huge bowl for $12 is a pretty good deal, enough for two.

Soc Trang also serves Bánh mì, the Viet­namese style sand­wich, but they are not on the menu. In talk­ing to staff, I found sev­eral other things that had been added to their reper­toire, but not to the menu. Just say­ing. I’d also rec­om­mend any of the clay pot dishes, any of the pork chop op­tions, lemon grass beef, and, if you are in a group of four or so, the hot pot is a great ex­pe­ri­ence.

Soc Trang is an­other great ad­di­tion to the small bevy of Viet­namese places the Coast is blessed with. Check it out.

Fried noo­dle dish, with beef and crunchy veg­eta­bles; how­ever, it’s not on the menu yet.

PHO­TOS BY JU­LIAN BRUNT Spe­cial to the Sun Her­ald

Com­bi­na­tion chow mein is enough for two.

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