Charles Phan’s Tastes of Việt Nam

Once a year Charles Phan, the chef and owner of the San Francisco restaurant Slanted Door, returns to Việt Nam — which he left in 1975 as a teenager to make his way to the United States — with members of his kitchen staff for what he calls training.

Over the phone, he described the regimen: waking at sunrise for breakfast at the hotel, journeying out for a second breakfast, sampling food at a market, lunch, a nap, back out to another market, dinner, then perhaps a bar and a snack.

So training is basically eating?

“You can say that.”

Mr. Phan said with a laugh.

“And drinking.”

For his new cookbook, “The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food,” Mr. Phan included a few recipes drawn from these food-finding missions, like Dungeness crab with cellophane noodles.

Mr. Phan talked about his favorite spots in Việt Nam and in the layover city of Hong Kong.

Following are edited excerpts:

Charles_PhanCharles Phan

Where do you start your tour?

In Hong Kong, to break up the flights.

There I love going to these small little street restaurants called dai pai dong.

They have a lot of stir fry, seafood, beer, sometimes it’s a noodle shop.

But if you do want fancy:

I go to a real old school dim sum house called Luk Yu Tea House.

The whole place feels like it goes back to the ’70s.

You’ve got guys who look like Chinese mafia with their young girlfriends.

And in Việt Nam, where do you start?

In Hồ Chí Minh City, my favorite place to start is the wet markets.

I think it got that name from the floors that are wet from hosing down the seafood.

The most famous is Chợ Bến Thành.

It has all these little stalls filling up with people selling fresh produce, raw meat, fish, clothing.

Slanted DoorFor his new cookbook, “The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food,” Mr. Phan included a few recipes drawn from these food-finding missions, like Dungeness crab with cellophane noodles

Any prepared food?

All sorts of small plates.

For lunch you have what’s called broken rice, and you can pick an array of things to go with it:

Catfish, caramelized mackerel in a clay pot, a stir-fried vegetable.

Then there are 10 or 15 different noodle soups.

Of course, all the dumplings.


A lot of fried things like fried shrimp.

The fruits are amazing, tropical mango and papaya.

Gobs and gobs of pickles.

It could be borderline kimchi, lotus root with carrots or pickled baby garlic, which is so tender and amazing to eat with some fatty pork.

Of course, the bánh mì sandwich — the bread is so different from the baguettes here.

It’s much lighter.

I still can’t figure out how to make them.

Cooking_VietnameseOpen-air cooking at Quán Hoa Đông in Hồ Chí Minh City, the sort of restaurant Mr. Phan visits on trips to Việt Nam

How do you go about choosing a stall?

Look for one that’s attracting a lot of people.

Try to pick one with running water.

And if you speak the language, ask someone for a recommendation.

But you have to be careful how you ask them.

People might think you want this fancy restaurant where the food stinks and the prices are high. Instead structure the question like, where’s the last time you went out?

Any dish you’ve had in Việt Nam that’s made it to San Francisco?

Chả Cá Lã Vọng in Hà Nội.

It’s the name of the restaurant, the street, and the only dish they serve: a plate of fish prepared with turmeric on a charcoal stove and served with a platter of herbs, maybe some basil, sawtooth herb or culantro, cilantro, dill.

I can’t really copy it exactly.

We don’t have the same kinds of herbs, and I use an Alaskan halibut.

I try to make the sauce as close as to what I remember, but it’s impossible.

It has so many nuances.


Source: The New York Times


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