In the course of Googling, I reminisced about "The Saigon," as we called it. The Saigon Palace was a diner-like establishment with formica tables and late 80s decor such as pinkish wallpaper and framed Asian-ish prints. It also had a pages-long laminated menu. They served Vietnamese coffee and a million other kinds of drinks, mostly coming in tall parfait-type soda fountain glasses where you could see grass noodles or thick descending drips of sweetened condensed milk through the sides of the glass. Everything seemed a little exotic. Once I ordered what I thought was just hot coffee, and when it came and I gave it a stir, an intact egg yolk came swirling up to the surface to greet me.
A huge bowl of food was super-cheap, maybe about $5 CDN. You could smoke in the back room, which was a big deal to college kids. The back room of the Saigon Palace was the first venue of my eating something on a dare, in this case some kind of small chile pepper that seared my mouth but earned me folding money and a little extra respect. (At least I hoped it was respect, haha!)
Anyway, I learned two things from Google. One is that the Saigon Palace now seems to be closed. The other is that #37 is probably something called Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, which basically means rice noodles with grilled pork and spring rolls. Yes!
My mission now had focus. My post-Thanksgiving goal would be to replicate Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio as soon as possible and without traveling anywhere. I figured the blogger "Wandering Chopsticks" would know what to do, and sure enough I found some good information on her page for Bun Thit Heo Nuong, Tom, Cha Gio. I also found a second good source at Hapa Nom Nom.
Next came the adapting. Most of the sources I looked at showed a wheat-type wrapping for the spring rolls, but the Saigon Palace always used rice-paper wrapping. It forms a pale, blistery skin on the spring roll that is shatteringly crisp and delicious. While I can actually buy these at the local farmer's market, I didn't have time to do so. So that eliminates the authentic Cha Gio.
But I can narrow my goal and still try for Bun Thit Nuong. As Wandering Chopsticks puts it, this is more an assembly of items than a single recipe. Here's what I put together.
Clockwise from upper right:
- sliced cucumber, fresh cilantro, fresh mint, bean sprouts
- crushed peanuts (I put roasted unsalted peanuts in a plastic bag and pounded with a mallet)
- Rice sticks (called "Vermicelli" as well, by Ka•me)
- Pickled carrot & purple daikon (Do chua from Wandering Chopsticks)
- Fish Dipping sauce (Nuoc mam from Wandering Chopsticks)
- Marinating pork from Hapa Nom Nom (see below)
- NOT SHOWN: greens—I used tender lettuce leaves and baby kale
While most ingredients are raw and cold, there is a little cooking involved. You need to cook the rice sticks (vermicelli) according to instructions and then rinse in cold water. And after marinating 2+ hours, the pork will be ready to cook. For this part, I used an inexpensive pork chop of some kind—the cheapest pork per pound that I sliced into long thin strips and marinated according to Hapa Nom Nom's recipe. Except... I didn't have molasses, so I made it Vermont-style by using maple syrup instead. I stir-fried the sugar-laden pork for about 10-15 minutes until it was very browned and caramelized. It smelled amazing. I know frying is not grilling, but Wandering Chopsticks says it's OK so I went for it.
Place lettuce/greens in bottom of bowl. At the Saigon Palace this would be a proper large bowl with pink and blue and yellow designs all over it.
Next, add a generous portion of cold rice noodles.
Garnish around the sides with mint, cilantro, cucumber, pickled vegetables, and still-warm pork.
Top with a sprinkling of peanuts and a generous slosh of fish dipping sauce over all.
The finishing touch at the Saigon Palace was always a generous squeeze of hot sauce--I used Sriracha.
Notes: This was delightfully close to the rice bowl of memory, I think the Sriracha squeeze and peanuts put it over the top. My fellow eater also really liked it, and he's never been to the Saigon Palace. I would love to include:
eggy steamed meatloaf: This would sometimes turn up in #37 and sometimes not. Wandering Chopsticks has a recipe for this simple Vietnamese classic, also known as Cha Trung Hap
crispy shallots: I ALMOST pulled these off as well, but then I burned the shallots to a char in hot oil. Oops :(
Cha Gio: obviously this would be so much more "#37" if it came with the rice-paper spring rolls
Giant iced Vietnamese coffee: because of course!
Do you have a Vietnamese comfort food? Have you been to the Saigon Palace in Toronto? Do you ever have elaborate cravings that you feel compelled to follow up on?