Editor's Note: Welcome to Deep Fried Chicago. For the past year or so, you've probably noticed that Joe has cataloged the best fried dishes for TGI Fry-Day. But that small column could barely contain his bubbling oil love. So we've expanded it, given him a little more cash, and let him loose to sample as many deep fried dishes as he stomach in one go. Take it away, Joe!
For better or worse, non-native Vietnamese restaurants patrons stick mainly to three old reliables: phờ, bún thịt nướng (vermicelli rice bowls), and bánh mì. The myriad contrasting flavors, textures, and temperatures of each dish is responsible for their wide popularity, but after repeated orders, it's easy to stop seeing the Vietnamese culinary forest for the trees. How do you go about further navigating these relatively uncharted waters? Kevin Pang got to the heart of the matter last year when he supped with guidance at Phờ Xe Tăng (aka, Tank Noodle). If anyone out there knowledgable in Southeast Asian cuisine is interested in dining with an affable redhead with boyish charm and good table manners, please drop me a line. Until then, I'm stuck doing this the old fashioned way: working through the menu one item at a time. But with dishes approaching the mid 200s, it helps to do things systematically. And I can't think of any better place to start than with items straight from the deep fryer.
The #13 Deep Fried Stuffed Cake ($8.95), featured two crispy wheat flour and mung bean sprouted disks, each inlaid with a headless, skin-on shrimp. A table salad of leafy lettuce, sprigs of Thai basil, mint, and cilantro, and a few slices of cooling cucumber rounded out the dish. The waiter advised that portions of the cake are meant be wrapped in the salad ingredients and dunked into the small bowl of accompanying carrot-spiked nước chấm. These "shrimp muffins" (for lack of a better descriptor) were interesting to look at, but an extended stay in the fry oil rendered their dense-crumbed interiors greasy and their exteriors dental-work crunchy. The richness of the oil overpowered after only a few loud bites.
The #14 Self Wrap Shrimp Cake ($15.95) was more successful. Essentially a platter of deconstructed gỏi cuốn (summer roll) ingredients, the spread comprised dried rice paper rounds (and hot water for reconstituting them), more table salad and nước chấm, and two sugar cane skewered shrimp cakes perched atop a bed of toothsome rice vermicelli. Fried until just-crisp, the subtle flavor of the tender shrimp held its own against the other wrap elements. The idea here is for everyone to make their own rolls, which in theory sounds fun and interactive. However, this is what my best effort looked like in practice:
Not too bad I know, but this is right before the whole thing popped open and had to be eaten one component at a time with chopsticks. Unless you're looking for a quirky, we're-in-this-together first date experience or you and the rest of your table are consummate summer rollers, I'd leave the wrapping to the professionals in the kitchen.
It wouldn't be working through the menu if there weren't a few let-downs, missteps, and lessons learned along the way. But the #201 Fried Calamari Squids ($16.95) is a great example of what dreams may come to those willing to make the slog. This dish is all about restraint. Lightly battered calamari pieces and gently stir-fried scallions and dried red pepper sit on top of a bed of lettuce slightly wilted from the heat. The rich batter is unlike anything I've ever tried: the menu mentions butter, and I can certainly taste butter, but three's no real sign of it anywhere on the plate. Alternating bites of the calamari, veggies, and the accompanying steamed rice results in a taste experience that is new and exciting, comforting and familiar. Deep fried trial and error never tasted so good.