Phở Bắc, my go-to Vietnamese spot in Queens, is located in Elmhurst’s most unusual strip mall. In addition to another Vietnamese restaurant there’s Singa’s Pizza; Nusara, a newish Thai eatery; and Sri Penang, a Malaysian joint. And, for good measure a huge Asian supermarket. Every store has something to do with food. Whenever I hit up Phở Bắc, I get their signature dish—rich, beefy broth and noodles. I guess you can say I’m highly suggestible. This time around I was determined to get something different. I considered a raw shrimp dish that a friend told me about, but we couldn’t find it on the menu and the owner Bắc said he never served it in the first place. So we shifted gears, and in doing so discovered two simple yet extremely delicious dishes.
The first was súp măng cua ($2.95). If you told me a few days ago that I’d be singing the praises of crab and asparagus soup or that I’d be slurping any soup other than phở at a Vietnamese restaurant I’d have called you crazy. This deceptively simple soup is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s a gussied up take on egg drop soup with plenty of sweet crab meat, asparagus and mushrooms. A little bit of pepper opens up the flavors.
Cáộ kho tộ, or simmering fish with caramel sauce and pickled mustard greens, is something that I’d have tried sooner had I ever moved beyond phở and summer rolls. Simmering is a bit of understatement though. A clay saucepan is brought to the table, and the waiter lifts the lid to reveal catfish fillets awash in a bubbling brown sauce. For a mere $8.95 it’s dinner and a show.
The dish had a tiny red pepper next to it on the menu, but it ended up having very little chili heat. Maybe it refers to the fact that when it first comes out it’s scaldingly hot. I let it cool down for a bit and dug in again. Salty, sweet, meaty, caramel, but mostly salty. The deep brown liquid tasted like it was made with a ton of fish sauce and sugar. Soon I realized that the tender chunks of fish are meant to be eaten with the pickled greens and accompanying bowl of rice.
In addition to the white rice, we also ordered cơm chiên đặc biệt, or house special fried rice ($7.95). The generous portion is studded with shrimp, pork, chicken, egg yolk, green peas and bits of carrot. But the best part is the rice itself, the tiny couscous-like grains must have been cooked in chicken broth. As I waddled out I made a decision to forgo phở more often.
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