Monday, May 19, 2008

The Complete Vietnamese Experience

According to World Travel Guide the climate in Vietnam "varies greatly from north to south" but you might run in to a tropical monsoon during the "wet season" from May to October. Having been to Baltimore's own slice of Southeast Asia known as Saigon Remembered more than a few times, I didn't recall it being a "theme" restaurant, but that's what it felt like yesterday when we ventured there for dinner with good friends, frequent THG contributors and fellow Baltimore zinesters WP Tandy and Davida Breier. (By the way, both Pat and Davida have new issues of their zines out. Pat delivers another in a series of themed Smile Hon, You're in Baltimore installments with an ish devoted to Charm City tattoos while Davida offers up a new issue of the excellent review zine Xerography Debt and a new installment of her perzine Leeking Ink.)

The day had been weather-weird from the get go as the sun was shining when I awoke after Chris and Ryan let me sleep til 8:30 (a luxury as anybody with a 1-year-old will tell you), but the skies quickly clouded up and went from sprinkles and steady rain to flirtations with the sun all afternoon.

When it was time to head out for dinner I decided to slip out of my comfortable shorts and polo shirt into a more sensible pair of jeans and casual but collared shirt given the current overcast and slightly cool atmosphere. By the time we got in the car and drove from the 'burbs across the city limits the sun had poked through again, turning the cool dampness into warm humidity.

Sitting down in Saigon Remembered's low-key, non-descript dining room we felt like they were trying to give the restaurant an authentic air of the Vietnam climate. It was warm and sticky, almost wet and I felt like I was, as they saying goes, "back in the shit." Nothing cuts through the jungle atmosphere like a cold beer, its welcome condensation dripping off the bottle onto your hand so Pat and I immediately ordered a couple Asian beers... only to be informed that the restaurant couldn't sell any liquor because they were waiting for a new liquor license. I'm not sure how you let your license lapse like that, but okay. Ice water all around!

One of my favorite parts of any meal at Saigon Remembered is usually their selection of spring rolls... large, rice-paper-wrapped handfuls packed with everything from seafood and noodles to pork and shredded vegetables. Today, though, the wrappers are tough and chewy, unlike previous visits and both Chris and I voice our disappointment in them on the ride home.

The weather must have been causing me to have a slight case of Culinary Alzheimer's because I completely forgot to order one of my favorite dishes at Saigon, a serving of their plump and fragrant Basil Mussels. That's okay, that gives me an excuse to go back and get them and the delicious, excitingly-named Shaking Beef, the first – and one of the best – dishes I've ever had there.

Though I haven't gotten around to a full write-up yet, one of the best meals I had while in Seattle was at a wonderful Thai restaurant named Ayutthaya, which sits at the corner of Harvard & Pike Streets. I originally thought about getting a spicy catfish dish but passed when a companion ordered it. After tasting it I was glad I passed – not that there was anything wrong with it, but the dish wasn't as spicy as I'd hoped/expected and my Wrapped Chicken far exceeded my expectations. (More on that dinner and my entire Seattle culinary excursion to come this week.)

So, when confronted by a Saigon Remembered list of specials that included not one, not two, but three spicy catfish dishes, I decided that it was a sign from the culinary gods and I pulled the trigger on a Spicy Curry Catfish that delivered everything I'd hoped from the dish at Ayutthaya. A large plate filled with silver dollar-sized hunks of tasty catfish spiced just right – enough heat for a kick that made my eyes water slightly, but not so much that it had me clutching for my Singha ice water.

Chris ordered up a plate of noodles and requested they hold the peanuts so she could give some to Ryan. Unfortunately, the menu neglected to mention the amount of curry the dish featured. Luckily, Davida offered some of her Tofu and Tomatoes, and we found two more things that our daughter eats with the enthusiasm of a competitive eater. We remarked on the ride home that we're still waiting for the food she openly turns up her nose at.

In other words, she does not have the palette of a Young Hungover Gourmet. Whew!

As the meal progressed so did the day's weird weather and the climate inside – and outside – the restaurant. About the time our entrees arrived I could glimpse the skies darkening and a steady rain trickling down the awning outside the restaurant. The trickle soon became a downpour and I silently cursed myself for not throwing an umbrella in Ryan's travel bag.

Though I pictured myself getting soaked by the mini-monsoon as I hoofed it around the corner to get the car, I welcomed the plummet in temperature and the cool, refreshing air that was coming in through the restaurant's open front door, driving the temperature down a good ten-to-fifteen degrees, cutting through the heavy air like a machete through jungle brush.

As I finished swiping the last chunk of catfish around my plate to soak up the coconut and curry sauce the storm had made its way through the area, revealing a last gasp of sun as the weekend came to a close.

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