May 26, 2009

I hate to admit this, but I know very little about my Vietnamese heritage. When the Vietnam War ended, my dad’s  side of the family fled Saigon for new lives in Chinatown. We’d see them at holidays and weddings; that was about it. But recently, a few of us got better acquainted over a great meal.

Four of my first cousins met with my sister and I at Thai So’n. This is basically the only Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown they’ll eat at. One cousin also said it’s the only Vietnamese place she knows of that makes its own rice noodles.

These are the shrimp rolls. Really good:

Thai So’n is at 89 Baxter St. I call this bustling side street Pho Row because there are so many Vietnamese noodle spots on this block. During our lovely dinner, the cousins showed us how to chow down Vietnamese style. I really enjoyed learning that it’s okay to use my hands!

We started off with the classic Vietnamese spring roll, known here as Goi Cuon ($3.75) — salad greens and cooked shrimp wrapped in a translucent skin of rice noodles. There’s a peanut sauce for dipping. Fish sauce works well too. More on that later. Here are the spring rolls:

Cha Gio ($3.95 for four or $7.25 for eight) is the fried Vietnamese spring roll, filled with pork and cooked veggies. It was nice and crispy — but all of us agreed that the stuffing was rather bland.

However, Tom Chien Bot ($6.95 for a small platter and $9.95 for the large one) hit the mark. This is a fried shrimp platter served with sweet-and-sour sauce. They were crispy, greasy perfection. And expect to get platters of fresh salad fixins’…you can wrap a fried goody (or a chunk of anything) in a lettuce leaf, then add a mint leaf or two. This will take your taste buds to a whole ‘nother dimension.

We LOVED the grilled Banh Hoi Chao Tom ($10.50). This is shrimp pounded into a paste,  wrapped around fresh sugar cane and served with bouncey, rice noodle-y “pancakes,” a lettuce platter and a plate of pickled vegetables.

Start with the lettuce, then add a bit of everything else, dip into the sauce and you’ve got a nice wrapper of stuff to nosh on. As for that juicy sugar cane, go ahead and gnaw on it!

We sat there eating and talking for hours. Next up was this Banh Cuon Cha Lua ($6.50). Vietnamese-style pork luncheon meat, slivered cucumbers and fresh bean sprouts. Pleasant but not particularly memorable.

We also had two beef dishes: Banh Hoi Bo La Lot ($14.50) was grilled beef and Banh Hoi Bo Lui ($10.50) was little beef meatballs. They were rather boring.

Our last order was Bun Thit Nuong ($5.95), a bowl of grilled pork with lettuce, mint, scallions and peanuts on what the menu  called “rice vermicelli.” The cousins insisted we try the homemade rice noodles. The trick to enjoying this entree is fish sauce,  a clear, amber-colored liquid that ever-present at Vietnamese meals. Carrot slivers float in little saucers of this pungent condiment, that’s jazzed with a pinch of sugar and a dash of vinegar. Great for dipping. But you can apparently drench anything in it. Like these noodles. We poured an entire bowl of fish sauce into our noodles. And it wasn’t too much!

Just in case you’re wondering, my cousins, who are in their 50s to 70s, say they can’t eat like this every night. On a daily basis, these savory-yet-sweet dishes would amount to too seasoning overload. Our night out was a treat for all of us.   :)

P.S. — We didn’t booze it up. But the beverages were still interesting. I really took to the Soda Xi Muoi ($2.50). It’s based on a salted, dried plum treat that we all grew up with in Chinatown. Salty plums are sweet, salty and sour all at once.  Sucking on one of these can make your whole face pucker. Never imagined that they’d taste good mashed into a glass with sugar and club soda, over ice. Yum.

Meanwhile, my sister tried the classic Vietnamese coffee, Ca Phe Phin Den Nong  Hoac Da ($2.25), which is loaded with tons of condensed milk. She described it as “really strong.” Had to be, because when it was poured for her, it glub-glubbed super-thick into the cup.

After her last sip, our meal was over. We all had such fun that we agreed to do it again. Next year. Can’t wait.

Thai So’n
89 Baxter St.
Mon.-Sun., 10:30 – 10:30 p.m.

Takes Mastercard, Visa and cash
Rice dishes $5.25-$6.25; seafood, meat platters $9-$11.50 ; noodles $6-$7; noodle soups $4.95-$6.25

Click HERE to see the restaurant’s Google map location.