Ethnic Eating 101: Vietnamese, Part 3
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Chả cá Thăng Long
While every ethnicity has its own foodways, there are threads that are universal. Porridge is a universal thread; grilling things over open fire is a universal thread, and cooking things on a ripping-hot metal plate is a universal thread. If you're at a Tex-Mex restaurant, this involves beef or chicken and is called fajitas; if you're at a Vietnamese restaurant, it involves catfish, marinated in turmeric, galangal (a slightly more medicinal-tasting cousin of ginger) and fish sauce, grilled on a very hot cast-iron flat skillet, served with skillet-charred onions and dill and called chả cá Thăng Long (sometimes written as chả cá Thanh Long).
When you think of dill, you might think more of gravlax and Swedish boiled potatoes, but this is a very authentic northern Vietnamese dish. It'll be served with the usual table salad, plus boiled rice vermicelli and, of course, nước chấm. You can assemble it yourself, or have it pre-assembled (in which case it will be called bún chả cá).
The taste is one of those revelations, especially if you're used to muddy, Southern-style deep-fried catfish. The edges char just a little bit, permeating the dish with a slightly smoky flavor; the onions sweeten on the grill, and the dill provides a slightly grassy note. Brought together with the unctuousness of fish sauce and the floral essence of the various herbs, it manages to have almost a buttery taste. You'll never look at that dried-up platter of chicken and bell peppers at El Torito the same way again.
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Where to get it: Viễn Đông (14271 Brookhurst, Garden Grove) or Hanoi Restaurant (9082 Bolsa, Westminster).