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CHARLES PERRY ON RESTAURANTS

Tasting The Wild Edges Of Vietnamese Cooking

September 05, 1986|CHARLES PERRY

There comes a time when you've just got to do it. You've got to cut loose. You've got to go for a snack on the wild side.

The walls are closing in. Somebody's stolen your palate and replaced it with Anso nylon. The Chinese restaurants are tasting like Denny's, only heavy on the sugar and soy, and the Thai restaurants are tasting Chinese, and you can't tell what they're calling enchiladas from cannelloni. Is it you? Is it the restaurants? You've got to know.

That's when I head down to Bolsa Avenue. There are scores of Vietnamese restaurants here and hardly any of them makes an effort to get non-Vietnamese customers. Here is the last wild cuisine. Here are restaurants that haven't even thought about shaving the foreign edges off their native cooking.

Take May Hong, a slightly funky mom and pop place with the usual Vietnamese newspaper rack by the door and a glass full of chopsticks at every table, where the tape machine plays melancholy Asian pop songs and once in a while a little Mozart. It gets quite busy for dinner on weekends, full of enthusiastic Vietnamese customers and the occasional Anglo who is an old Vietnam hand nostalgic for the old days in Saigon.

No playing safe with noodles and soups here. Right after Next Courses of Beef is a listing of five or six goat dishes. Goat in sour sauce (not terribly sour, and with a little chopped peanut in it) is pretty good, one of the many things you make into a Vietnamese taco with the rice paper, lettuce, herbs and pickled vegetables provided. For my taste, though, dipping it in the fish sauce that is also provided doesn't add a lot.

"BBQ goat," it turns out, is not barbecued in the kitchen but cooked on a little gas grill at your table. The raw slices of goat come with about half a stick of butter, which I put in the rim of the gas grill to provide some drawn butter. I think this is what you're supposed to do. Part of the adventure in Vietnamese restaurants is having to figure stuff like this out.

Steamed goat in curry sauce is more of a challenge. The goat meat itself is nice, as usual, just a slightly gamier cousin of lamb, and the curry sauce is mild and rich, but here is one of those Southeast Asian tastes that are truly foreign to this country, namely a delight in the chewiest forms of meat. There are big chunks of gristle, carefully cut and arranged on the plate, about as much gristle as meat. I haven't tried the "fresh sliced goat," which is a raw dish, and having weathered the goat curry I'm a little sorry I didn't.

Another chewy item is the snail rice soup--actually not a rice soup but a rice noodle soup. The broth is rather good, flavored with what tastes remarkably like American pickling spices and given color by limp pinkish slices that at first look like noodles but are ginger. But the snails--not totally black but black and white, like cow's eyes--are not cooked until soft. They're positively chewy, though no problem to anybody who has eaten gristle.

Who could resist something called "eel hot and pot"? This is a Mongolian hot pot cooked at your table in a sort of soup pot built around a chimney loaded with blazing charcoal briquettes. In the soup is green onion, lots of pale pink strips of ginger, whatever is responsible for the pickling spice flavor and big black chunks of eel (actually another fish substituting for eel, as the waiter confessed). It's a challenge to get the stuff out of the pot with either soup spoon or chopsticks, but the somewhat dry flesh is pleasantly meaty with only a few unproblematic bones to spit out. It comes with a huge mass of white vermicelli.

By this point I'm feeling back on my game, self-reliant like an Eagle Scout. In "pork rib with broken rice" the fried pork chop (you cut it up into chopstickable portions with a steak knife) comes on wonderful aromatic rice, accompanied by pickled vegetables and some limp strips of . . . veal? Some mild raw meat, anyway, dusted with a bland, mysterious powder nobody could explain to me. I'd guess it is toasted rice flour.

Seven courses of beef is a traditional meal consisting of slices of beef poached at your table, ground beef in various kinds of meatball, a little beef shish kebab and finally a ginger-flavored beef rice soup. Beef. Americans can relate to that. But among the sauces that come with this dinner is a gray-green one that tasted, as somebody remarked, like water squeezed out of a sponge that has been lying damp for a week or two. I saw Vietnamese eagerly lapping it up at neighboring tables so I know there must be something to like about it, but it is beyond me. At last my quest is over. I have been out in the wild and reached my personal frontier.

This is one of the cheapest culinary adventures around. Soups and noodle dishes are all $2.75-$5 and meat entrees are $5.50-$12.95.

MAY HONG RESTAURANT 10561 Bolsa Ave., Garden Grove

(714) 554-0974

Open for lunch and dinner daily. No credit cards accepted.

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