You may think you know the Vietnamese restaurant on Highway 150 in the Publix shopping center. There have been various ones there over the last ten years. But the current incarnation, owned by a cousin of one of the previous proprietors, has only been there for the last four months. Asian Cuisine is the best, most authentic Vietnamese I have had so far in this town.
In fact, the first time I was there, I went for something I knew no American would ever order, the Pho Tai Gan. Pho is a Vietnamese soup made of a stock broth with various meats or vegetables. The Tái Gan contains rare steak--for lovers of carapaccio (some of whom can be found here in Birmingham)--and tendon. Tendon is not big here, maybe on a par with chicken feet. But with the right attitudinal adjustment, it is really quite good, and when you come to think of it, it could save you a collagen injection.
My rare steak was good but not quite rare enough (it ought to be placed in the Pho raw to stay rare in the hot broth). But the tendon had that strange authentic Asian food texture, both tender and chewy, and a little slimy too. It was perfect, and there were plenty of big thick strands of it, as if Dr. James Andrews himself had scoped the Achilles heel of many a fatted calf.
The Pho broth itself was not the dirty dishwater of many stateside Vietnamese restaurants. It was viscously light in consistency but rich, tasty, and full of that healing feeling. And right then and there I resolved to go back and parse through Asian Cuisine's offerings for the readers of the Birmingham Weekly.
When we returned for our second visit, my companion Bunny said not to even try the Chinese food they serve on the side, since these people are Vietnamese. But I rejoined that most Chinese food in the U.S. is not authentic, and (as I would dearly love to find some that reminds me of the back streets of Taipei) the Vietnamese may not know better than to stay true to form. After all, they are very correct people who have a society based on most people following the rules and everyone breaking them.
I laugh when I think of my favorite wine shop owner in Hanoi complaining about having to buy fake stamps to look like the shop has paid the onerous tax the government places on wine--the high tax the shop owner complains is ruining everyone's business. But I digress.
Bunny and I tried to sample a variety of dishes. She got her own Pho but she would not tell me about it. And to tell the truth, I am not much of a soup or a soupspoon sharer.
I tried a small Pho No. 1, or Pho Dac Biet, (order as P1) at $6.99. It was the Charlie Weiss's kitchen sink of Pho, with every filling in it. P1 is a beef noodle soup with paper thin slices of tender eye round steak; thicker, fattier and tougher pieces of brisket; meatballs of beef made compact like a sausage by mixing with ground tendon; “stripe,” which consists of white slices with chewy ridges from somewhere in the digestive tract; and my previous favorite, tendon. But like most sampler plates, it did not give full satisfaction in any degree. For my money, there were barely a few specks of tendon, so next time I am going to go back to the delicious P7 (Pho Tai Gan).
We also ordered the calamari, Muc Chien Don, and before you say that sounds Italian, the best squid I have ever tasted was fresh from the seas off Vietnam. This calamari was not as plump and tender, but it was well-prepared in the salt-and-pepper style that Vietnam more or less shares with China. Most importantly, along with ringed slices, there were plenty of whole squid heads and bunches of tentacles.
I persuaded Bunny to go for a Chinese rice dish and we settled on the Cashew shrimp. It was in a light brown sauce, not only with cashews, but with crisp water chestnuts and celery. I could not decide if the shrimp was frozen, but Bunny said it was at least frozen raw and not cooked first and then frozen (and gads, reconstituted in the microwave, like the country girl would immorally do it), and it was pretty good, she says (Bunny, that is). Well I remember the Vietnamese fishing village where I trained with the SEALS, the shrimp straight off the boat on the beach, with Sai Gon beer, the whitecaps breaking from out of the dark, and a thousand stars sparkling across the night sky. OK OK, not fair.
Bunny complained that they do not serve brown rice. Of course I have not seen an Oriental restaurant in town that does. But Bunny took a different course to happiness and resignation. Even though she is a nutritionist, and knows the horrors of bleached flour and rice, "Live a little!," she admonished me.
Bunny also complained on our second visit that the Pho noodles were shorter than before. Usually it seems they are about three feet long and it is difficult to keep them from touching the floor before you can slurp the end of the strand all the way up into your mouth. Maybe they cut the noodles to help Americans manage the dish using chopsticks, but, if so, Bunny put a stop to that lack of total authenticity. And they knew better than to offer us a knife and fork on our second visit.
Because of her convenient allium allergy, Bunny could not beat me as she usually does to my proper lion's share of Ga Xao Sa Ot, lemongrass and chili chicken, filled with large slices of pungent nearly-raw white onion. It also had scallions and lemongrass in a soy-based sauce spicy with chili. Our waitress suggested I add Hoisin sauce because no Vietnamese would eat the Ga without it. But it turned out she recommended Hoisin, Tuong An Pho in Vietnamese, with virtually everything. She is from the resort city of Na Trang (pronounced nah chang) and, to her, growing up, it must have been like ketchup.
The Hoisin restaurants serve from a squirt bottle is the color of Dale's sauce (but more the consistency of Heinz 57) and it is similarly made with soy, but also sweet potato, corn starch, sesame seeds, garlic, and spices.
When our waitress found out I used to go with the well-known TV weather girl in Vietnam, she brought out all the guns. By that I mean the nuoc mam (pronounced nook muung), or Vietnamese fish sauce. She bought out the soy-based one, which really is like Dale's sauce, similarly used in place of salt. And she also brought out a bowl of the fish sauce mixed with lime juice and garlic (Nuoc mam pha). Yum. In Vietnam we mix our own little bowl-ette of lime juice with their delicious fine powdery white pepper for dipping.
She did not, thankfully, bring out the Big Bertha (maybe in Vietnam you would call it the SAM missile), the great-great-grandmother of all Viet Nam lady-smelling sauce. It is so unbelievable I don't think you can even dare find it on the internet, but it is basically rotten fish sauce. If I recall correctly the recipe calls for burying dead fish in a jar for seven years. I tried it once, but talk about an acquired taste. That thick, funky paste was very different from anything I ever thought of as delicious. I'd like to give the country girl a spoonful to taste.
But back to reality and Asian Cuisine. There was one thing Bunny really wanted to know--do they use MSG? And the answer is No. So you don't have to absent-mindedly forget to tell the server not to juice your Sweet and Sour Pork, as you usually do.
2539 John Hawkins Parkway, Hoover
205 988 8448
A few simple Vietnamese rules of dining to follow:
Do NOT tempt fate by trying the red peppers mixed in the stir-fry dishes. In some faux Asian restaurants they are surprisingly mild and you can even get by with eating them. Not here. It's a four-alarm fire. Come to think of it, the Vietnamese would eat them, but only after twenty-five beers.
Our waitress said to put that Na Trang ketchup into the Pho. I think not, but I could be wrong.
Pho looks as though it would be pronounced like faux (as in Geaux Tigers, and Beau). If you want to impress your Vietnamese hosts, though, pronounce it Fuh, more like tough (is anyone getting confused by all this phonetic spelling yet?), of course with an "f" instead of a "t", and without the "gh" (f sound). OK, to make it easy, it is more like FU without the CK.
With your Pho, you will receive a bowl of sprouts and greens. It is not your salad. You are supposed to put the sprouts and Vietnamese "basil" (leaves only--remove from the stem) into the hot broth. Don't forget and wait till it cools, or your greens will not properly wilt.
You will find some sliced peppers in the same bowl with the sprouts. Do NOT even touch them with your fingers (if you do, don't rub your eyes). And, for the love of Pete Sampras, do not eat them either. Simply pick up one (and one only, never mind there are ten) with your chopsticks and place it in the broth to spice up your soup. If you do not remove in less than five minutes your soup may be rendered inedibly hot (spicy) unless you are one of those bar brawlers the country girl likes who eats atomic-heat wings.