Pho From Home: From Saigon Kitchen to the Super H Mart and Back
Soup at Saigon Kitchen
Photos by Kristy Yang
Is it safe to come out?
Someone's writing sure did bring about a lot of ire last week, but I've always felt food, like puppies and babies, is a unifier not a divider. So let's get started again.
Like many food finding expeditions I've had in the past with my mom, this week we discovered something fantastic! The search had started off dull and disappointing, but fate and strong resolve led us on a mission, a Garland mission. I was determined to find a good meal, a gem. I had received too many e-mails, too many suggestions to give up on this Vietnamese neighborhood. My mother was ready and steadfast in my pursuit.
This was Monday.
By Thursday, mom began to give me the leery side-eye when I asked her if she wanted to join me for lunch.
Monday: We had tried out the "glossy" version of Vietnamese at Bistro B, with less than spectacular results. I've found in the past that a lot of the best eats come from "grittier" establishments, and the city of Garland has its share. With so many options, it's difficult to know where to go. My friend, Janet, suggests Saigon Kitchen, which lists as a menu item Bun Rieu, a shrimp, crab, and tomato-based noodle soup that I had been craving for weeks.
Saigon Kitchen sits in the same shopping strip as Pho Bang, a restaurant also on my checklist. We sit in our car for a few minutes pondering which restaurant to patron, as my mom has thrown a wrench in my plans with her comments about positive experiences at Pho Bang many years ago. Ultimately, my nagging craving for Bun Rieu wins, so Saigon Kitchen it is. We sit at a table next to a glass partition, which I soon realize is the dividing line between the smoking and non-smoking sections of the restaurant. As cigarette smoke starts wafting over the partition into our non-smoking section table, we move our water glasses and menus to a more remote table in the corner of the restaurant. While I enjoy a cigarette now and then, smoking inside a restaurant, or anywhere near food, boggles my mind.
We are delighted by the reasonable prices. It's been a long time since I've seen the numbers "4" and "5" in front of pho and bun menu items. We decide to try a bit of everything, and order Com Suon, a pork chop with rice, Pho Tai, a beef pho, Banh Mi Thit, a Vietnamese sub sandwich with grilled pork, and of course, Bun Rieu.
While waiting for our food to arrive, we notice all the pictures of food posted on the wall. Apparently, along with the Vietnamese staples, Saigon Kitchen also offered house salads with iceberg lettuce, American fast food dishes, and gyros. Immediately, panic crawled its way up my spine. I was worried. I was regretting that I didn't pick Pho Bang. Worst of all, I was terrified of my mother. She is sweet, tiny, and delicate, but when it comes to food, she is at her most brutal.
Our food staggers out, giving us the opportunity to try everything, one at a time. Quick summary of what happens next: The pork in both the sandwich and the rice dish are extremely tough and dry, the pho is incredibly salty (something that seems like it could've possibly been an accident on the kitchen's part opposed to a regular occurrence,) and the Bun Rieu is decent.
You can see why by Thursday, my mother no longer wants any part of my food outings. To get back into her good graces, I propose a change of scenery, a break from Garland. Knowing that she is an avid fan of Super H Mart, having visited the giant Asian grocery stores in Irvine and Atlanta, I have long promised her a trip to the Carrollton outpost. She gleefully takes me up on my offer.
The Super H Mart shopping center off of Old Denton and the George Bush Turnpike is possibly one of my favorite places in all of Dallas/Fort Worth. The variety alone is something to write home about. From groceries at the mart, to Korean barbecue at Omi, to pho at Pho Tai, to frozen yogurt at Yogurtland, to pastries at Mozart or Tous Les Jours, this is a one-stop wonderland for a day of eating, shopping, and then eating some more. Alas, my story this week is not about the clean and fairly decent, Pho Tai, nor is it about the abundant number of other restaurants in the shopping strip. As those who have ever visited an Asian country or a heavily Asian populated U.S. city would know, the majority of Asian culinary treasures are usually found in these two words: Food Court.
Maybe it's the competition with other vendors or the heavily native clientele, but Asian food courts can offer some of the most simple, yet memorable meals. Each vendor customarily specializes in a few items, i.e. noodle dishes, dumpling dishes, or rice dishes, making the chance that you will be eating something really good grow exponentially. Do not be mistaken. Not all Asian market food courts in DFW have been built, or more importantly, maintained, in the same vain as the Super H Mart food court. I have seen my share of heat lamps and dry, crusty, day-old food around town, but the Super H Mart food court, like the market itself, is of another class, and is similar to what one would find in a cosmopolitan Asian city like Bangkok, Hong Kong, or Seoul.
After walking from vendor to vendor, deciding on what to order proves difficult. We go to our default, which entails tactlessly looking at what others are eating and asking them if it is good or not. I know, I know. But we're Asian, and trust me, it's OK. My mother gasps as she directs my attention to a bowl of noodles that has been divided into two parts, with one part of the bowl holding a dark sauced "dry" noodle, and the other side holding a deep red broth based noodle soup.
To quote Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there."
Not to be a stickler, but it is split in two.
The understanding lady eating this awesome bowl of noodles nods at us and points to a stall in the corner, all while in mid-chew. As I walk up to China Factory and order "the bowl that is split in two," the Chinese woman behind the counter tells me it is actually called the Black and Seafood Noodle Combo. I also order a Hot Stone Bowl with Korean Barbecue from a stall specializing in Korean rice dishes, and Chicken Dumplings from an adjacent dumpling vendor. While I await our food, my mother, with stars in her eyes, wanders off into the market. I take the time to look at all the vendors' menus and notice some similarities. Many of the menus are listed in Chinese AND Korean, and all of the menus are quite short in length. As the bells go off indicating that our food is ready to be picked up, my mother meanders back to our table, mumbling, "I am going to spend so much money here."
Out of responsibility, I have to mention that the Hot Stone Bowl with Korean Barbecue is tasty, fresh, and crispy, as it should be, and the dumplings are sub-par with too-thick skin and under seasoned chicken filling. However, the thing that changed my life, what I've been waiting to tell you all about all week...are the noodles.
It has been misunderstood by some readers that I like bland broth. Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could prove it more than this hot, pungent, spicy bowl of noodle soup. While the dry "Dza Chiang Mien," noodle, or soup-less noodle with meat sauce, was tasty, I have had better. The better of the two noodles is by far the spicy seafood noodle soup.
Which brings me back to the Bun Rieu at Saigon Kitchen.
Both soups I had in this one week were seafood based, yet only one truly tasted infused with seafood. When I sat down to write this week, I found it surprisingly difficult to organize these extreme tastes, thoughts, and feelings, but I realized there is one subject that tied all of it together, and it is broth. When I ate Saigon Kitchen's Bun Rieu, there were the customary chunks of shrimp and crab paste, but I could not taste seafood in the broth. It was fine, but it wasn't great. When I first sipped the broth from (the unfortunately named) China Factory, it was as if I had never tasted anything like it before in my life. I could taste the deep essence of shellfish and seafood in my broth. Going back to the Chinese-Korean aspect of the menu, my mother stated that she had tried something like this when she was in the cold climates of Northern China, but it was not necessarily the same. I've had red broths like these in Korean restaurants in the past, but again, it was not necessarily the same. In many situations, authenticity and tradition are not a necessity for a dish to be magnificent. When I speak of authenticity in my blogs, I am referring to tried and true methods which highlight flavors, as opposed to the short cuts taken by many restaurants which rob us, the diners, of the experience to truly taste what it is we are supposed to taste.
The perfect case in point is pho. When I last visited Vietnam, my pho mentor, Mr. Hung, told me about a new restaurant specializing in clam based pho. I was a bit surprised that he was not out right indignant when talking about it. I was even more shocked when he said he couldn't wait to try it. His reasoning was: "Who cares what it is made of as long as it is good?" Like so many other Vietnamese people I asked, pho is about the scent, the warmth, and the essential deep flavor of the primary component of the broth. Beef pho should smell and taste like beef. Chicken pho should smell and taste like chicken, and so on.
While I am not wholly confident that such pho still exists in the modern era Vietnamese restaurant, I still feel the duty to let fellow enthusiasts know that it is the pho they deserve. I'm not saying to stop eating pho, but it is OK be a bit informed and critical about what you are eating. Who knows to what it could lead? Better pho being served in restaurants? Possibly. Or even better, you might start trying something new, and find a treasure of your own.
Saigon Kitchen- 3555 W. Walnut Street, Garland, TX
Super H Mart- 2625 Old Denton Road, Carrollton, TX
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