I don't usually take the recommendations of car salesmen too seriously, especially on matters relating to cars, but when it comes to food, my Samoan salesman friend Big Bruce knows a thing or two, even though his style of communication can be somewhat hyperbolic at times. If you have something to sell, anything to sell, in fact, Bruce is your man. He"s sold me on several restaurants, and he hasn"t been wrong yet. When Bruce visits a new restaurant, whether alone, or in the company of his equally voracious friends, he generally consumes over one-third of the menu, as befits a man of his stature, and is thus able to give me an accurate heads-up as to what"s worth eating and what should be better left alone.
A recent slobbery, verging on the hysterical, lager-inflected voice mail message from Big Bruce left me in no doubt as to what my next restaurant assignment should be. "It's a little hole-in-the wall," he bellowed. "It's right across from this lingerie place, you know, where they model it for you and such. And after you've been in there, you can go to this other adult place, but that's not essential. Anyway, when you get hungry, there's this little Vietnamese restaurant called the Saigon or something, and it's got a market next door, where you can buy tripe and rice cakes and all sorts of weird shit you just don't find at your local Marsh. Christ, it's making me hungry again just thinking about it. Anyway, try the Pho. It's got all kinds of things you don't usually get in soup and it's pretty damned amazing. If you like cow's stomach and bits of cartilage, that is. Anyway, call me when you"ve been. I want to know what you think."
How could I pass up such a stellar affirmation? Always an avid fan of Vietnamese food, my experience in this town has been limited to a couple of very fine establishments, neither of which serve the traditional soup known as Pho. Eager to learn my something new for the day, I decided to pay a visit to the industrial and commercial wasteland that is Lafayette Road between 38th and 16th streets. If you count amongst your vehicles a truck or an SUV, I strongly recommend that you take it should you decide to venture out to this part of town for a bite to eat: There are potholes here that would consume the average passenger vehicle, occupants and all, not to mention loose gravel, speedbumps and the occasional lot lizard. Such are the hazards involved in off-track dining.
Unfortunately, my first visit to Saigon Restaurant was on a Tuesday, and my friends and I were met with a hand-written sign in the door proclaiming, "Closed Tuesday, Fresh Food Tomorrow." Cursing our luck, but delighted at the restaurant's honesty, we decided to cut our losses and visit King Wok a little farther north, on what I generally (and probably misguidedly) refer to as the "safer" side of 38th Street.
Situated next to a Pier One, King Wok occupies a brightly-lit space that is typically sparsely furnished but clean and welcoming. A large fish tank at the back of the dining room provides some movement and color, and that's about it.
The menu here is divided roughly one part Chinese to three parts Vietnamese. The Chinese dishes are for the most part familiar and require little comment, although my friend"s beef lo mein ($5.50) and hot and sour soup were reported upon most favorably.
Launching into the Vietnamese menu, we started with a couple of very sound rice paper rolls filled with shrimp, lettuce, pork and mint for $2.50. The ingredients were fresh, and the rolls large. A peanut dipping sauce was fine, but I would have preferred the traditional nuoc mam, the sweet and savory fermented fish sauce that is ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine.
Moving along to main courses, Sandra K. went with the B™n BÏ Ch“ GiÚ ($5.75), a generous serving of vermicelli noodles, sliced spring rolls and shredded pork. A very light broth, subtly flavored with mint and a scant (but noticeable) seasoning of hot chili oil made this a complex and fascinating dish. A side order of nuoc mam rounded things out nicely.
For my part, I decided it was necessary to attack the Pho head on, as it were. Choosing more or less at random from a list of six, I opted for the sliced beef medium well done version ($5.50). A steaming bowl of broth and noodles duly arrived, along with a side dish of bean sprouts, limes and a peculiar but fragrant herb with the appearance of basil and the taste of mint. These are stirred into the broth to lightly poach and infuse their delicate flavors. Tucked in and around the noodles were a collection of beef-derived objects, some more recognizable than others. There were some thin slices of, I think, flank steak, some strips of liver, a couple of chunks of kidney and some rather pretty-looking slivers of tripe that fluttered like cuttlefish when drawn through the broth.
Never really one to like tripe, either when prepared by my grandmother or served on these shores as chitterlings, I failed to overcome my prejudice on this occasion. I"ll probably try them again sometime, but in all likelihood will not change my mind. In addition to these tasty morsels, there were a couple of animal parts that I did not immediately recognize, although some of the cartilaginous matter resembled pickled pigs trotters, and tasted roughly similar. Another piece of cartilage, or possibly tendon, was frankly just too weird-looking to put in my mouth, although I'm sure it tasted wonderful. All in all, though, this was a great dish, and extraordinarily good value-for-money.
King Wok offers a comprehensive selection of rice and noodle dishes, and appears to be quite authentic, at least to my untrained eye and palate. Everything here is fresh (or as fresh as it needs to be, as many ingredients are dried) and flavors are pure and uncomplicated. The service is alarmingly efficient, which means that you can pile up quite a number of dishes, then eat them in no particular order. There is no alcohol served here, but I highly recommend the freshly squeezed lemon juice or the young coconut milk. Prices are astonishingly reasonable, and portions are substantial. Dinner for two should cost under $30, almost exactly a mezza-snackie. As an introduction to Vietnamese cooking, King Wok is very serviceable indeed, and makes a welcome change from the run-of-the-mill fast food establishments.
Next week: Part two: Saigon Restaurant dishes it up