Slick as an Eel

"You're not eating the heads?" the server admonished. "The whole thing is good!"

I got an e-mail a couple of weeks ago that sent my imagination spinning. A Vietnamese-American woman wrote in to recommend May Hong on 7th and Broadway, claiming that it was the real thing. “Most non-Vietnamese have not really tasted authentic Vietnamese food because it’s labor intensive,” she wrote, “and Vietnamese are afraid that Westerners won’t like the taste. Mr. Chu [the owner of May Hong] is perhaps brazen to offer up the kinds of dishes that we eat at home, but now I think it’s time to let others in on the secret.”

I like secrets. Who doesn’t? I particularly love secrets when they involve a) hole-in-the-wall restaurants and b) dishes like “sour eel banana blossom fire pot.” So I called up a few friends and organized Operation Pandora.

May Hong has been open for about six months, according to Mrs. Prem, who is the cook and co-owner. She and her husband, Tran Chu, owned a tiny coffee shop called Café de Paris for sixteen years before opening May Hong to serve more complicated cuisine.

On my first visit, though, I was tempted to let May Hong stay a secret. My two companions dabbled in lunch-type dishes off the extensive menu of soups (beef and seafood), rice plates with grilled meats, and cold rice noodles (bun). I ordered a bowl of pho with rare steak and tendon, and while the rare steak was up to snuff, the tendon was served in huge, undercooked chunks — not the thin, translucent, gelatinous morsels I love. The shocker to me was that the broth, while aromatic enough, lacked flavor and salt. Pho without that intoxicating scent of beef, roasted shallots, and star anise is like pizza without cheese. I pushed it aside.

My companions fared somewhat better. We split two appetizers, shredded pork salad rolls and stuffed chicken wings. Our rolls were sloppily wrapped in rice paper, but the ingredients within exemplified the light, fresh flavors of Vietnamese cuisine: mildly meaty shredded pork tossed in toasted rice powder, a forest of lettuce leaves, sharp mint.

For once, the rolls came with nuoc cham, and the tart-sweet sauce, smelling of fish sauce, was a better match than the standard accompaniment, hoisin sauce. Our massive chicken wings, fried and sliced crossways, swelled to the bursting point with a bland chicken-egg-rice noodle mixture.

My roommate got excited about trying frog legs in curry, but I should have warned him that Asians don’t cook frog the same way Europeans do. He had a hard time picking the meat off the chopped, overcooked legs, and we found the flavor of the coconut-milk curry, musky with the natural taste of frog, a little too foreign. The meat had been mixed with cellophane noodles, straw mushrooms, and a fragrant Vietnamese herb that was a cross between cilantro and lemon verbena. The high point of the meal was the Special Rice in Clay Pot, which came to the table in the pot in which it had been cooked. Tiny flecks of char colored the lightly sweet, seasoned rice, carrots, pork, peas, eggs, and nuggets of pork and shrimp.

I went back for dinner a week later, bringing a crew of serious eaters with me in tow. I didn’t warn them that I had disliked my previous meal. On a Monday night, the restaurant was almost empty, and we felt lonely sitting at our huge table surrounded by sterile pink, mirrored walls and tiled floors, designed to fit large, noisy crowds. Over the next couple of hours, a few more diners would stray in, as well as a couple of locals who sat at the bar and chewed the fat. Three Chu children spent the night running around, delivering drinks, watching TV, and doing their homework.

The informal style of the restaurant had its effect on the service. Our sixteen-year-old waitress, the de facto dining room manager, directed her brothers with the practiced authority of an oldest sibling. She helped us make some sense of unfamiliar menu items and had a good idea of how to pick dishes that complemented one another. I trusted her unsolicited “Oh yeah, that one’s really good” more than that of a bow-tied, aproned, and slick professional. However, it took some effort to clear up confusion surrounding our choices, and we never did get the spring rolls we thought we ordered. And, like lunch, our appetizer plates never got removed, leaving a table for six covered with four people’s clutter.

What a difference a meal made! This time around the food excelled — especially the big-ticket items. The kitchen focuses on seafood, as well as the Bo 7 Mong, the traditional “Beef Seven Ways” seven-course dinner, which costs $12.99 per person; the minimum is three people. Since the spring rolls were a bust, we started with the Shrimp, Pork, and Lotus Root Salad. I was expecting cross-slices of supercrunchy mature lotus root, which is as big around as a large potato, but the two-inch-long, tender white vegetables we received must have been lotus shoots. They were mixed with blanched prawns, roast pork, fried garlic, and cilantro in a tart, lively lime and fish sauce dressing.

Next came the Tom Rang Me, or “Prawns on Tamarind,” which we couldn’t resist ordering. Whole shrimp dipped in a crunchy, almost powdery batter were deep-fried and served with fried scallions, cilantro, and jalapeño slices, all dusted in tart tamarind powder. I picked off the heads and ate everything but the tail, crunching the exoskeleton like another layer of batter. “You’re not eating the heads?” the server admonished me. “The whole thing is good!” Shamefaced, I popped one into my mouth (all the others had gone to my friend John, who adores them), and it was like eating a salty, shrimp-flavored chip.

We received more directions with the first entrée, Catfish Stewed in Casserole. “You have to eat this one with rice. Otherwise the sauce is ewww,” she said, taking the lid off a clay pot to reveal a reduced brown sauce coating a few pieces of fish. The Vietnamese make a pungent, sweet-salty fish-sauce caramel that enhances, not masks, the earthy taste of catfish. But it does need to be eaten with a ton of rice to mute the strong flavors. May Hong’s version bested that of a certain overpriced, nationally known San Francisco restaurant — at a third of the cost.

Perfect all alone was the whole salted crab, which arrived cracked and reassembled on a platter strewn with fried scallions, cilantro, and jalapeños. The entire crab had been floured, salted, and then wok-roasted until the flesh was firm but moist, its flavors concentrated. We sucked out all we could, and then I picked at the less enticing egg, crab, and cellophane noodle mixture that had been baked in the top shell.

Finally, the aforementioned sour eel firepot with banana blossom arrived. Our server placed a burner on our table and settled a covered metal bowl on top of it. We removed the lid to discover a bundt-cake-like dish filled with a bronze stew, a lightly piquant, strongly sweet-tart broth that reminded me of an assertive tom yum soup. In it floated pineapple chunks, wedges of banana blossom (with the texture of artichoke leaves), and two-inch-long sections of whole eel. It took no effort at all to peel the mild, meaty flesh away from the spine. We dipped the eel into a bowl of chili-garlic-lemongrass paste and ate it with white rice.

I’ll let you in on another secret: Later events led me to suspect that my “informant” had a PR background. Never mind — like a modern-day Pandora, she unlocked May Hong’s box of secrets, and a thousand enticing smells and flavors escaped.

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