Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Original #34

Evaluating a restaurant can be overwhelming. Where to start? Service? Atmosphere? Texture of the softsoap in the bathroom? Start with the food, you say? That can be even more fraught with potential problems. I mean, I enjoy eating out and I like to think that I can tell the difference between a great meal and a mediocre one, but the kind of specifics that are required for a good restaurant review, well they are largely beyond me.

And I’ve found that it’s particularly difficult at Asian restaurants. For one thing, I’m largely self-taught. I am a child of the seventies, growing up in Canada at a time when “Asian” equalled “Chinese” and “Chinese” equalled egg rolls and chicken balls. My love of Chinese Dim Sum, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian food developed largely through trial and error and rarely with an expert to guide me (more often my fellow explorers were as ignorant – and hungry – as I was.). Asian restaurants also often confound me with menus that have ridiculous numbers of dishes. Depending on the establishment they can run into the hundreds. Who knows where to start, let alone whether you’re hitting the kitchen’s high notes.

Never being one to let ignorance hold me back, I am trying my hand at restaurant reviewing anyway – specialized knowledge be damned! But if a learned background in the culinary arts and a comfort with foodie language is not going to form the basis of my reviews, what will set my writing apart? I need a gimmick, oops, I mean a starting point, a frame of reference for my experience.

Where better, then, to start than the Asian restaurant we frequent most often and, more importantly, the dish we always order. There is nothing that really sets Pho Thang Long apart from the myriad of other Vietnamese restaurants in town. Located in a strip mall by Lincoln Fields in the city’s west end, it offers the usual range of pho and other rice and noodle-based dishes. It has a unique d├ęcor, a “modern sparse” look that pairs hip lighting with framed prints of flowers from Wal-Mart. It’s clean (although, it must be noted that the bathrooms – the male one at least – doubles as storage area with everything from brooms and shovels to extra cleaning supplies piled beside the toilet) and the service runs the range from indifferent to polite depending on the night and the number of customers.

It is the place, however, that we first tried bun. It was our second, maybe third visit (five years ago, when the restaurant was under different management) and it was listed as a special (we came to learn that the specials on the board never changed and stayed the same visit after visit until they finally ditched the special board in the last round of renovations). In our ignorance (see above) we thought it was some sort of actual bun. I mean, we’d had Asian buns at dim sum stuffed with red bean paste and pork Our waitresses English wasn’t very good nor was our Vietnamese, so we went ahead and ordered it anyway. We soon learned, of course, that bun is a dish of vermicelli noodles with fresh vegetables (lettuce, sprouts, carrots) and a choice of grilled meats and spring rolls all brought together with nuoc cham, a sweet fish-based sauce that gets poured over the whole dish.

It was a great discovery, to say the least. There was enough good stuff to lessen the guilt normally associates with too much fried and deep fried foods. The cold portion balanced nicely with the warm portion. The saltiness of the fish sauce, the tang of the lime juice and the sugar’s sweetness in the nuoc cham added some energy to otherwise bland noodles. The price (7.50 or so depending on how many toppings you order) and the generous portion only helped make it an even better choice on busy nights when we wanted someone else to cook.

So, you’re thinking, we decided to run around town and try buns at the city many, many Vietnamese restaurants. While that would be fun, it feels too limiting somehow. We like variety in both our food and our restaurants. But how to pay homage to our beloved bun, but yet still get to broaden our horizons? At Pho Thang Long, bun is number thirty four on the menu. Thus, we have set it as our goal to eat our way though as many thirty-fours as possible at as many different restaurants as possible. If a restaurant chooses to number it’s menu, we’ll find it and report back.

Pho Thang Long

1315 Richmond Rd.

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