I am back in my 2nd home of Toronto this week which means I will dive into another side of foodie heaven for the next 7 days. All the Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese food I could ever want all at my fingertips. I am quite excited. But first, let’s have some Banh Mi, dammit.
Vietnamese food. No, not the famous noodle soup, Pho, I am talking about their fast food. Banh Mi, Nem Chua, Goi Coun and Banh Cam are just a few. Again, I am resorting to this “_____food is the best food because it is SOOOO euphoric“ description for Vietnamese food. Let us be honest here, by saying that is the type of reaction you get from certain types of food, it damn well better be on the top of your foodie list. But what do I mean by this?
I love sushi and I can eat it all day if I craved it enough, but sushi does not evoke this sort of passion that some other foods get from me. Funny to say, eh? Yes, sushi is artwork, it is damn tasty, but it is not emotional to me. Perhaps I have not had the best sushi experience to warrant that reaction. I stay mainly to AYCE (All You Can Eat) restaurants for best cost effectiveness. WAIT, no, I have had fine-dine sushi where we spent damn near $200 and I was not happy in the least bit. It was a few years ago, I was catching up with an old friend who was in town, an former college crush, and we decided on sushi for dinner… he was not satisfied with the first restaurant (or the second, the fourth… the fifth) and we had to go to another and another and ANOTHER restaurant until he was satisfied with his raw fish. See why he is a “former” college crush? But even with the highest quality sushi we had that night, it was a bit devoid of character too me. The sushi was too clean and too behaved.
So let us come back to Vietnamese food. I love Pho, on the coldest nights or even feeling a bit under the weather, I can swallow up a huge
pot bowl of Pho Dac Biet and be so content with myself. People are passionate even about Pho. I once went on a Pho crawl with some foodies and we toured the Argyle/Uptown neighbourhood of Chicago and tried every Pho restaurant on the strip. I only joined in on one of the three nights they did this crawl, but in every restaurant they tried the signature dish and then a dish they wanted to try. Goodness, I never knew there were that many Pho restaurants in Argyle. It is like the neighbourhood pub, or in my case Starbucks, where they know you and everything about what you order. On the flip side, you know them and everything about their food. It is a relationship that keeps you coming back to the same restaurant.
But Pho… is not what I am writing about today. I am all about the Banh Mi. I love Vietnamese baguette sandwiches. They are cheap, well made and packed with tons of flavour. Vietnamese cuisine gets many of its flavours from its Southeast Asia setting, but the culinary technique, its flare, is all from the French influence over the country.
The fact that they can take a baguette, spread some house mayonnaise, pâte, head cheese, radish and carrot pickles, cilantro and jalapeño peppers into a sandwich and make it taste glorious is beyond me. I would never in a million years decide to school all these conflicting flavours together and expect it to taste out of this world and unlike any other sandwich from the Italians or the Turks. I am… that… passionate about Banh Mi.
Sadly, my town of Chicago is not home to the best Banh Mi out there. I hand that trophy to Nguyen Huong in Vaughan, Ontario about 50 kilometers north of Toronto. The outer market strips that stand around the famous Vaughan Mills have some interesting little stores. Everything from Bubble Tea to Persian Rugs and Indian Jewelries are found here… but I only go for the food.
I decided to stop by Nguyen Huong after doing some grocery shopping at the store next door (B&T Food Market) and have at the ready made snacks from their bar area. While my sandwiches were being made, I picked up some Banh Cam (Fried Sesame Balls with Mung Bean), Goi Coun (Fresh Spring Rolls) and the ever elusive Nem Chua (Vietnamese Cured Pork).
I have been wanting to try Nem Chua for a long time. Something about cured pork tartare with garlic and spices piqued my interest. However, I could never work up the courage to do it. But why? I can eat raw fish, I have had beef tartare at the fanciest of restaurants and I can certainly annihilate a thigh of prosciutto without regrets so why was I afraid all of a sudden?
A few of my friends reassured that I had nothing to fear, if I have no issues with bacon and prosciutto then I should be quite at home with it. So I went to a place that I could trust the food from. I could never trust grocery store versions because you do not see the their processes, you have no idea how clean the facilities and the pork handling are. Since Nguyen Huong does everything in-house and within the glance of prying eyes, I decided it was safe enough to try their raw pork. So I went for it.
If you are familiar with the crunchy texture of pig ear or tendon, you will be quite alright with Nem Chua. Maybe it is the way the meat sets during curing, but the texture is something to behold. It has a slight crunch and the look and feel of noodles, so if I was being surprised with this on my plate without any prior research, I would have been a bit grossed out by it.
But I am a foodie dammit and this ain’t gonna stop me from discovering new foods!
It was tasty and just the right amount of spice to keep you from thinking about the raw pork. Unlike prosciutto which definitely does not hide the fact that it was once raw pork, Nem Chua is done so in a way that appears like sausage or minced meat. I am glad I can say I have tried it. I still a huge hunk of it in the fridge calling my name, but in small doses.
Boy-oh-boy, if I am like this about trying another form of meat tartare… how will I ever be when it comes to trying deep fried scorpions and other insects? I am not ready for that!
3255 Rutherford Rd.
Vaughan, ON L4K 5Y5