Chef Matt Storch took CTbites Invites on a tour of Vietnam’s most beloved dishes. About 60 people attended the event at Match, Which was inspired by the Huynh Family-Storch’s wife Tran (pronounced Chung), mother in law Ty and Father in law Tai. They also helped cook. While the evening was intended as an introduction to the cuisine, the chef and family presented some twists that surprised those who think they know Vietnamese food. Like chicken braised in American’s favorite soft drink. Yes, coke.
Before waiters began ferrying platters to the tables, the chef warned, “There’s going to be lots of cilantro and lots of nuts, so if you’re allergic, leave now.” Family-style service was, he said, “the only way I can serve this many dishes to this many people.” “This many dishes” was not an understatement.
Bottles of sriracha hot sauce stood at each table, ready to be squirted into sauces and soup. Spring rolls – fresh, rice paper rolls filled with lettuce, shrimp, rice noodles, and scattered with chopped peanuts -- were accompanied by hoisin sauce. Fried mini egg rolls filled with pork belly, shrimp and taro root, Tai Huynh’s specialty, were dipped into nuoc mam, the salty-sweet, funky, fish-sauce-based sauce.
To lighten up the meal, bahn mi, the trendy, toasted sandwich was made with Ty Huynh’s cured, spiced tofu instead of cured meats. “She salt-cures the tofu,” Storch explained later, “To draw out the moisture. Then she braises it.” Five-spice powder was the dominate flavor. The tofu was showered with minced carrots and scallions, and micro-cilantro (with the coriander seed attached). Micro-cilantro has a milder flavor than the love-it-or-hate-it mature herb so favored in Vietnamese cooking. The sandwich was a wonderful combination of light, crunchy, wet, fresh, sweet and spicy. I only wished for more of a pickled flavor from the carrots.
The next course was typical street food lunch in the Vietnamese-Chinese tradition. It nearly did us in. Steamed pork buns. Need I say more? No? Well, try to stop me. Decadent. Soft, sweet buns, slices of salty, fatty pork belly, rich, sweet sauce, bits of carrots, scallions, and micro cilantro. A confection of a dish. It felt tragic to feel so full, yet cast our eyes upon the remaining pork buns on the platter.
Beef pho (“It’s ‘f-uh’ not “faux’” Storch reminded the potential minefield of mispronouncers) was next, here mercifully served as a small amount in a big bowl. Only being so satiated could make me grateful for less rather than more of this glorious rice noodle and herb-filled soup. The classic beef broth was redolent of Vietnamese cinnamon, the bowl strewn with bean sprout and rice noodles. A mound of shaved, rare, tender short ribs cooked before our eyes in the hot broth.
Caramel chicken is one of my favorite dishes to order in Vietnamese restaurants. But cola-braised chicken? Never heard of it. “It’s something my father-in-law makes,” Storch said, “He uses coke and sprite and ginger and he braises it.” It was accompanied by perfumed jasmine rice. For dessert, the chef lightened sticky rice pudding with fresh coconut milk. The soft, purple chunks were taro, which changes color when cooked.
The evening began with two intriguing drinks. Orange-hued bubble tea was festively served with colorful wide straws. The mild, refreshing milky tea with fun tapioca pearls was a hit with my tablemates and me. We found it to be just-sweet without being overly so. It made me long for a hot day.
The fermented plum and vodka-and-soda cocktail – lightly fruity and sweet with a touch of salt -- was delightfully intoxicating. The perfect cocktail. The third beverage of the evening was a 333 Vietnamese beer, “the drink of choice with this food,” Storch said.
Feedback on the evening’s Food of Vietnam was great, Storch said, “People loved it.” Look for Vietnamese-inspired dishes on Match’s menu. Pork Shanks in Cola is on the menu now.