In the mood for Chinese tonight? Skip it, and try out a fresher, healthier, and tastier alternative to Oriental cuisine. My wife and I were reluctantly turned on to Vietnamese food back in the early 90’s (hey, as long as someone else pays, I’ll eat anything, even if it is dog). What we experienced that day was an epiphany in the way we were eating. Vietnamese food, to us, became the gateway to other food cultures like Thai and Indian. In just one lunch we realized how much we had been missing and were excited to begin our culinary quest.
My wife and I have enjoyed Vietnamese food at a number of places around San Antonio. Unfortunately, many of the good restaurants come and go here since many are family owned and operated and just close on a whim. Similarly, a staffing change in the kitchen is almost always noticeable, since the food will take on the character and personality of the cook. Regardless, the food is always made to order and a fresh alternative to typical American food.
In general, Vietnamese food relies on rice noodles and flavorful broths, sometimes combined, and sometimes not. You won’t find dog or horse so don’t freak out, this is America after all. However, many of the soups may use cuts of meat that are normally unfamiliar to American palates, like tendon or tripe, but they are always noted on the menus. However, these cuts are usually very flavorful and extremely tender since they have been stewed. Most dishes are topped with or served with a side of fresh mix-ins like cilantro, jalapeno, bean sprouts, and shredded carrot. I like the aspect of being able to modify my dish to my tastes (usually, I just dump it all in anyway).
What I like about Pho Ha Long, located across the loop from Ingram Park Mall on the near West side of San Antonio, is that you can get this fresh, home-made tasting food relatively cheap. I’ve tried a lot of dishes over the years but have a few favorites. The Vietnamese Fried Spring Roll (Cha Gio) is similar to the typical Chinese egg roll, except that it is filled with clear bean thread noodles, black mushrooms, cabbage, and carrots, and the wrapper is thinner and crispier, unlike the egg roll’s thick, chewy, and soggy texture. Most restaurants serve this with the house fish sauce (nuoc mam) and lettuce. Don’t be intimidated by the sauce. The base is a fermented extract of fish to which each restaurant will add other ingredients to make their own unique sauce. In general they add water, vinegar, sugar, and garlic, giving it the classic oriental taste of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.
The Summer Rolls (Bi Cuon or Goi Cuon) are quite different. The wrapper is made from rice paper that has been moistened to give it flexibility. You will normally find it filled with lettuce, rice noodles, carrots, and some form of meat like shrimp or grilled pork. These cold rolls are usually served with a peanut sauce that reminds me of a smoky peanut BBQ sauce. Very good together.
I normally like to order some kind of rice noodle dish. Most of them will have a bed of lettuce and cucumbers, a layer of white rice noodles, and then a topping of some form of meat or spring roll. I like the thinly sliced BBQ pork. You will need to add the signature fish sauce or the noodles will be sticky and dry. Most tables will also provide you with some form of chili which you can add to taste.
A very interesting dish I would encourage you to try is the Coconut Milk omelette or crepe (Bahn Xeo). A coconut milk batter is poured on a grill and filled with meat (I like the shrimp or chicken), bean sprouts, onions, mushrooms, maybe, and cilantro, then folded in half. Douse it with fish sauce, cut off a chunk, and wrap it in the lettuce it is served with. If it is well-made it will be slightly sweet with a crispy exterior and soft interior.
One thing you will not find here is a bland soup (pho). Any of the soups you order will have a complicated flavor to it with a variety of textures from noodles, meats, and fresh vegetables.
Try a bubble tea. This is a drink, whether a tea or fruit based, that has a generous handfull of tapioca beads at the bottom of the cup. The beads add an interesting gummy-bear type of texture that are delivered via the largest diameter straw I have ever seen. There are numerous flavors, so pick one you think you might like (you never know unless you try).
Oh, and don’t forget to finish up with a Vietnamese Iced Coffee. In most places a dark chicory coffee will be placed into a small colander to drip into a cup with a small amount of condensed milk. Once the coffee has brewed through, mix and pour into your glass of ice. What you have now is a robust coffee combined with the creamy, ultra-sweet milk. The two opposing flavors complement each other so well that you may order another one.
Be adventurous if you go. All of the food is explained well in the menu and there are no surprises. If you have a problem with nuts, the rice noodles dishes and some of the sauces have crushed peanuts on them. Likewise, ask about the spiciness of the dishes if that concerns you. This is the kind of place that will adjust your dish to your liking.
What give me confidence about Pho Ha Long is that other Vietnamese people eat there and enjoy the food of their culture and upbringing (their comfort food, if you will). That being the case, don’t expect a fork unless you ask for it. Just learn to use chopsticks.