Lately I’ve been on a serious Vietnam kick. After reading Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, a collection of stories based on some of the episodes of his Travel Channel show No Reservations, I’ve decided that’s where I want to go, Vietnam. He also wrote about Portugal, Morocco, Spain and Cambodia among others but it was his chapters on Vietnam that really hooked me. I did some other reading, checked out Lonely Planet, and even thought, hell, let’s see what a round trip ticket might cost me. The answer? A lot. Duh, no surprises there. But even if they were giving away airfare, I couldn’t take the time off so yea, so much for that plan.
My wanderlust hopes might’ve been dashed but I still had Vietnam on the brain. More than anything, Bourdain had got to me with all his talk of Vietnamese food. So since I couldn’t make it to the actual country, I went in search of the food.
Bao Noodles, a cozy bistro-like restaurant on a quiet stretch of second avenue close to my apartment, had good reviews and I liked it from the start. It was cute, our waiter was smiley and chipper without being obnoxious, and the menu had lots of things on it without being completely overwhelming.
We started our foray into Vietnamese food with an order of cha gio chay, or vegetable spring rolls. Now, I’ve had spring rolls hundreds of times in all sorts of asian restaurants, but these just might have been the best ever. The crispy fried spring rolls were stuffed full of veggies including taro, carrot, tofu, mushroom and bean sprouts. Sometimes when you eat spring rolls, you take one bite and all the filling comes out, leaving you with a sad empty shell, but Bao’s spring rolls were stuffed through each bite. They were the perfect combination of spicy, tangy and surprisingly bursting with flavors for being just veggies, but to make it all better they came with a zesty citrus soy sauce that really turned up all the flavors.
For the entree I had originally wanted to get pho, Vietnamese soup usually made with beef and vegetables, but I couldn’t bring myself to drinking a hot liquid. The night was warm, well into the 80s even after the sun went down, and the restaurant with all its closely placed tables was warm too. After the spicy spring rolls, even the temperature inside my mouth had gone up. But I really wanted to try it, so I was happy when Flaneur ordered it for himself. The large bowl was brimming with delicious pho tài, oxtail broth with thin slices of beef, thick rice noodles and all sorts of delicious spices that made it rich, exotic and filling.
I went with the gà xào xa òt, a huge plate of lemongrass chicken with a bowl of white rice. For someone who wanted to cool off, this was the wrong thing to order. But after the first bite I didn’t care how hot I felt. I threw my hair into a ponytail and dug into the lemongrass chicken, because it was too good to do anything but scarf it down. The juicy chunks of chicken mixed with a spicy blend of red and green peppers, chilies and of course lemongrass. Basically, exactly the kind of meal I imagined would be served if I was sitting in some small restaurant in Hanoi instead of Manhattan.
The portions were so big that we reached one of those rare moments when we physically could not eat another forkful. The rest of our food was packed up in doggy bags and when the waiter asked if we wanted dessert I had the distinct mental image of spontaneously combusting at the table. But if there’s one thing there’s always room for, it’s coffee and Vietnamese coffee sounded exactly like what I needed. Vietnamese coffee is dripped into a glass with condensed milk so that when you stir it together it’s already milky and sweet. The coffee at Bao went from good to great when it came served with a glass full of ice. After all that sweat inducing spicy food, a sweet, creamy iced coffee was the absolute most perfect ending to a great meal.
After dinner at Bao all I could think was how badly I want to go to Vietnam.