Bay Area Bites, Part II – Hanoi Fish & Stinky Tofu
Bodega Bistro, in the Little Saigon enclave of San Francisco's tenderloin (the Vietnamese influx adding some family stability to this traditionally seedy neighborhood), is a fairly new Vietnamese restaurant I had heard a lot about and was eager to try. There are some excellent restaurants on the stretch of Larkin Street between roughly Eddy and O'Farrell. Pagolac is perhaps the best of the more traditional Vietnamese places. But Vietnamese food is also a true, non-contrived fusion cuisine, drawing on the long history of French colonial culinary influence. In Vietnam paté, yogurt and Laughing Cow cheese are ubiquitous, for instance. Bodega Bistro is a place that capitalizes on the French connection, offering some more "modern" Eurasian-fusion-type dishes in addition to its Hanoi-style cuisine (this itself something of a novelty since most U.S. Vietnamese restaurants are based in Saigon styles). The name itself is a pun, as each of the syllables in bodega represents a different type of meat in Vietnamese: bo (beef), de (lamb), and ga (chicken).
My schedule only allowed for a solo lunch, so I couldn't try as many dishes as I'd have liked, but the two things I did try were winners. Nom is a shredded green papaya salad with "beef jerky" (small pieces of dried beef) and peanuts, in a lime and herb dressing. It was refreshing, with complex flavors. I also ordered the cha ca Ha Noi, Hanoi-style fish filet (flounder here, though traditionally catfish) served on a sizzling platter with a side plate of lettuce and herbs for rolling the filets into finger food, rolling food in lettuce being a favorite Vietnamese pastime. Bodega Bistro served little Boston lettuce cups, as opposed to the Romaine leaves I'm used to. Accoutrements included two aromatic leaves: the somewhat soapy herb I know as shiso in Japanese cuisine, and another, even more soapy leaf whose name I don't know, and which I've only been served in Vietnamese restaurants. I do not like the latter leaf. Then there was the enormous pile of cold bun (rice vermicelli), which one rolls in the lettuce along with the fish.
The fish was lightly breaded with what was probably a thin egg & flour batter, providing a subtle crispness that kept the fish wonderfully moist. It was sauteed with dill, onions, shallots and peanuts, the dill being the real surprise. Dill is apparently a common enough herb in Hanoi-style cooking, but I had never had it in Vietnamese food before. It worked wonderfully, and got along quite well with the other ingredients. There is also turmeric in the dish, but it was very subtle. Two sauces were served with the fish: one made with savory fermented shrimp-paste and the other a slightly sweetened fish sauce. I alternated the sauces as I ate my lettuce-fish rolls.
Bodega Bistro's refined take on Vietnamese food seems for the most part utterly earthy and authentic. The restaurant may ultimately give The Slanted Door a run for its money among people who care more about food than buzz. The Slanted Door, by the way, is a real darling among Bay Area foodies. They serve a very good, but not that good nouvelle version of Vietnamese cuisine, and I frankly never understood what all the fuss was about.
* * *
Spices 3, in Oakland's Chinatown, is a Sichuan restaurant that apparently serves Sichuan cuisine as it's prepared in Taiwan. Its number 1 and 2 sisters are in San Francisco's Richmond district. The restaurant bears a subtitle: Szechuan Trenz. When Robert Lauriston showed me the menu at his Memorial Day barbecue I was fascinated by the description of many of the items, even if all did not sound totally appealing–the large selection of stinky tofu dishes, for instance. There were dishes with "explosive chili pepper" and others with "flaming RED oil". Other dishes contained "Numbing" in the description. I wondered whether that was the name of a Chinese city, but Robert set me straight and explained that it's a translation of "ma la," which means "numbingly spicy." Also on the menu were plenty of entrails as well as some Taiwanese noodle dishes. We decided to go there the following night.
The food was good, but nothing spectacular. And it was not nearly as dangerous as it sounded. We ordered the following dishes (there were four of us):
Numbing spicy cucumber: a cold dish that was slightly sweet along with a hot spice that was actually moderate–hardly numbing, but quite tasty.
Chinese bacon steamed with spicy flour: Spare ribs steamed with spicy rice flour is one of my favorite dishes at Wu Liang Ye. This could not compare, and I don't think the preparation works as well with the fatty bacon anyway.
Fish filet with explosive chili pepper: This was served in a tacky wooden boat. Fried filets with a spicy breading were smothered in dry red chilies. The fish was delicious, perhaps my favorite dish, but none of us exploded.
Sizzling lamb with cumin spice: I'm not used to cumin in Sichuan cuisine. The dish was all right, if a bit lackluster. The cumin/lamb combination reminds one of Muslim cuisines.
Ong-choi with garlic: There's not too much to say; as long as simply sauteed green vegetables are seasonal, and not over-salted, they usually tend to be pretty good in most Chinese restaurants. Ong-choi, sometimes known as Chinese water spinach, is more commonly found in Cantonese than Sichuan cuisine, and Cantonese places tend to do it better.
Stinky fried tofu: Yes, we did it. Robert insisted, and I think he was the only one who ate more than one piece. Fermented tofu is often used as a condiment, and it works nicely as part of a sauce for green vegetables, but this funky stuff is not my idea of food proper.
So, while the food was pretty good, some of it very good, the menu ultimately was more interesting than the food itself.