My friend and coworker, Diep, owns Truong Nguyen Restaurant in District 3. The food is fresh and the great prices even more refreshing. This place tucked away down an alley at 66/5 Pham Ngoc Thach Street could be hard to miss, but judging by the constant flow of people, word is luckily out how to find it.
Diep walked me through all the choices in the serving case and believe it or not, a stack of fried fish complete with heads and tails drew me right in. With so many choices I almost felt like flipping a coin and calling heads or tails, but in the end choosing an item with both seemed the proper thing to do. Yes, ordering something this exotic goes against every fiber of my being, but I figured why not. With Diep here showing the way what could possibly go wrong. Eating at a friend’s restaurant is like dining in a controlled oasis far removed from the wild wild west free for all of the sidewalks.
Peeling back the fried skin and removing the bones revealed a wonderfully moist layer of bright white flesh. Admittedly with more than a little trepidation, I poked around this formerly ocean going vessel until a surge of courage finally helped me take the plunge. One bite and this fish that only seconds before had scared the you know what out of me now had me sold hook, line, and sinker. Even Diep’s nuoc cham dipping sauce is amazingly smooth with a proportionally perfect combination of sweet, sour, salt and spice in each spoonful ladled onto the fish and rice. Were salt healthy and not something that would bloat me up like some bad water balloon, I could have downed a cup of that nectar.
Surely you know how a song or even a smell can sometimes trigger a memory from years long past. Believe it or not the taste of this fish did the same and all of a sudden snapshots of fishing with my dad in the far northern reaches of Canada began flashing in my mind. Absolutely amazing isn’t it that recollections from 30 years ago can suddenly bubble up as if they were just yesterday.
This cá diêu hồng chiên giòn tasted very much like a cornmeal batter dipped walleye fillet fried in straight up lard on an island in the middle of Birch Lake, Ontario. OK, so not entirely as I don’t think we had the amazing combination of scorching birdseye chili peppers and lemongrass as part of our Canadian version, but the actual fried taste was similar indeed.
Later on I translated lunch to words more easily digested by my mind hungry for some English and found out this was none other than crispy fried tilapia. Wow, the very same tilapia I have steamed with ginger and soy in the United States. Only difference and a huge difference indeed, is that my American tilapia spawned in the seafood section of the grocery store in a boneless, skinless form highly appropriate for Western consumption.
So this is what tilapia looks like before it arrives all sanitized and clean in our shopping carts. Honestly I never really put much thought into the fact that fish actually looks like, well, fish in its purest state. How I never made the connection between what floats around an aquarium and what arrives on my plate is a testament to the great lengths the food industry goes to back home to produce items highly sanitized and hardly offensive.
Six months ago, I’d have never entertained eating fried skin, scales and tail dipped into a sauce of fermented fish juices. Fast forward to now and my oh my how times change. This culinary journey is redefining my tastes in the best possible way and as long as friends like Diep can keep pointing me onward, the exotica that entices me shall continue to evolve.