We didn't make it to Little Saigon in Orange County, but Los Angeles has enough variety scattered throughout that we knew we could feast authentically without having to head for a specific enclave. So we went with our good friends Jeff and Judi to Lemongrass Vietnamese in Eagle Rock, that little jutting of northern Los Angeles that separates the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.
This chemistry lab looking contraption is the set-up for making Ca Phe Sua Da, Vietnamese iced coffee. A vessel containing super strong coffee and hot water sits atop a glass with sweetened, condensed milk. When the coffee has dripped through onto the milk, the result looks rather like a black-n-tan. Then you stir well to dissolve the milk and blend it with the coffee, and then pour the mixture over a glass of ice. This stuff's rich, strong and highly addictive. In fact, we lost count of how many we'd had, at least until the bill showed up.
Here it is, all mixed up and ready to drink, alongside some Vietnamese lemonade, made with lime juice and lemongrass.
We started with an assortment of fresh spring rolls with a ginger dipping sauce. I've grown to love these fresh rolls so much that the fried ones seem too heavy now (not that I'd turn one down). Rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, lettuce, fresh mint leaves and cooked and chilled chicken, shrimp and pork rolled into cool rice wraps are refreshing and healthy. You can eat these all day long without worrying that you've damaged your diet. (After a full year of feasting on the cuisines of the world, it's apparent that we're not too worried about that, though.)
Himself went for the pho, because he's hard pressed to have anything else when he goes out for Vietnamese. (And just in case you didn't know, pho is pronounced fuh, with a short u, as in "What the fu...?!") He opted for fried tofu this time, but thin bite-sized pieces of raw beef make a bigger splash, so to speak, because the broth is so hot that when you drop in the beef, it cooks automatically, right in front of you. The beef broth (he couldn't do completely without the animal!) was delicately seasoned--that is, until Himself dumped in a spoonful of those rippin' hot chilis. Pho is one of the most nourishing soups around, and when you load it up with chilis like this, it's a great way to open up your head when you have a cold or a bout of sinus miseries--or to simply cool yourself down on a hot summer's day.
Accompanying a bowl of pho is a plate of fresh stuff: bean sprouts, Thai basil leaves, slices of fresh jalapeno pepper and wedges of lime for seasoning your soup to suit your personal taste. Call it the fine tuning nob on your meal.
Judi's com tom of charbroiled shrimp over steamed rice was served with a sweet dipping sauce, which played well with the smokiness of the seafood. The salad with ribbons of carrot and daikon radish gave it a fresh kick.
Jeff's bowl of vermicelli noodles topped with barbecued chicken included a couple of fried egg rolls (because some people just can't get enough rolled food, right Jeff?) and the same sweet dipping sauce. This reminded me a bit of having a bowl of soup without the broth. All the components were there.
I opted for banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich. If that looks like French bread to you, that's because it is. Back when Vietnam was known as French Indochina, a good deal of culinary exchange took place. The French may be gone now, but the baguette remains. This one is loaded with charbroiled beef. Strings of carrot and daikon radish and sprigs of cilantro round out the flavors and lend a fresh crispiness to the crunchy bread and smoky beef. It came with a soy sauce-based dipping sauce, but that wasn't really necessary. The flavors and textures were rewarding without sogging up the bread.
Of course we saved room for dessert--this is the last scene of the last act! Chuoi chien, or banana dumplings, are bananas rolled in won tons wraps, deep fried and served in a creamy coconut sauce. This gives you an array of textures as well as flavors. I wouldn't mind having chuoi chien for breakfast sometime.
Reminiscent of those slushy, gelatinous desserts I had in Thailand, Che Ba Mau, or Three Color Dessert, is a glass of red beans, pandan gelatin and coconut milk with a scoop of ice on top. You stir it up and eat it sort of like a chunky slushy, an assortment of colors, flavors and textures bombarding your senses with every bite.
It's time for a nap and some reflection now. After 52 different cuisines in the past 52 weeks, Himself and I agree we're still eager for more. As the defeated often cry at the end of a sporting match, "It's not over!" Except that we're not the losers here...