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.
Then again...where would we be without American individuality? The freedom to choose, the freedom to express our inner desires, the freedom to break out of the circle, the freedom to be alone.
Clockwise around the table:
Banh hoi, delicate squares of rice noodles, define an entire class of dishes. Here, grilled beef rolls are the savory star.
Duck soup with dried bamboo shoots is a hard-to-find treat.
Shredded duck meat tossed with cabbage falls into the goi category, special salads that start formal meals or accompany congee soup.
Vietnamese "gatorade" made from salted plums and lime juice. An acquired taste for some but most definitely good for your body on the hottest days.
Chicken curry reveals the country's old ties with India and Thailand.
Hearty and spicy, bun bo hue highlights thick, round rice noodles, slices of pork, and chewy nuggets of pig's feet.
Plates of fresh herbs...
...and fresh vegetables define a southern Vietnamese table.
A generous platter of sweetly charred pork chops will feed someone for a week.
Not quite the river prawns promised, but still rich with shrimp brains.
Fried frog legs, one of the restaurant's specialties, are the upscale version of buffalo wings. Lime and black pepper add zest.
The soft, fresh tofu is fried to order.
Spring rolls the New-World way...
...and the Old-World way.
The line out front hints at the lunchtime wait at this very popular restaurant, an excellent place to compose a medley of Vietnamese dishes.
Vung Tau II Restaurant
1750 N Milpitas Blvd.
Milpitas, CA 95035