A recent lunch with a caravan of hungry friends reminded me of the insurmountable difference between eating in America and eating in Vietnam. Even when the food is excellent, even with folks I love, even when the weather is as freaky hot as it's been this week.
Expansive menus, with dishes numbering into the three digits, and the a la carte approach to dining in the West culminated again in an experience that's difficult for me to reconcile with Vietnamese food: every single person at the table was eating something completely different.
My bowl of noodles was wedged between a dish of curry on the left and grilled beef with rice paper on the right. Across from me were fried frog legs, and at the end of the table was a pile of pork chops. When such radically different dishes are slung onto a table, the spirit of the food itself is lost.
Restaurants in Vietnam tend to specialize in one, two, maybe three variations on a single dish. Everyone in the restaurant, let alone everyone at the table, is slurping soup or wrapping shrimp together. If different courses are served, they come family style, and everyone shares from the middle of the table.
As for true family style, when the Tran clan gathers, we'll clear out the living room furniture, sit in a huge circle on the floor, and place multiple platters of the same dish to share in the middle. There's no such thing as a buffet for the cousins to pick and choose.