The ocean really is pretty to look at but it sure can burp up some weird mess, and this fish meal did not prove any sort of exception to this rule. District 3’s Huynh Huong Restaurant at 64 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street specializes in assorted fish dishes so here we go off the deep end for another culinary adventure. In fact, this is where we sampled the bun man (#175) which is a soup of dubious fragrance from the fermented shrimp base.
I stopped in front of the serving cart to gawk at all the foolishness residing in those serving pans. Of course lingering anywhere in Vietnam where a product is sold, someone is an open invitation for a local to pounce surgical precision to seal the deal. Of course I wanted to look like the big bad wolf of street food in front of some friends, and in my efforts to show off I careened down a road with no return. A pile of foot long fish seemed the perfect venue to display an utmost lack of food fears to those who had no clue I actually do fear many Vietnamese dishes. Of course on the inside I was telling myself this is not going to end pretty, but I had already committed to this brazen showing off and posturing.
The waiter brought my grilled whole fish coated in oily diced scallions, and away we went to places few westerners dare bring their appetites. I studied this thing from the tip of its head to the end of its tail while taking a deep breath. I’m sitting there thinking this fish was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean one minute you’re minding your own business swimming around with your buddies. Then the next thing you know you’ve got a wooden stick shoved up your butt coming out your mouth and some western dude is mangling you with a spoon and chopsticks. Actually I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, too when hunger struck.
I peeled back the paper like skin and tucked right on in. Where have I tasted this before? That oily flesh hit my tongue with such a distinct jolt. I took another bite but still couldn’t place it. Then it hit me. My dad’s anchovies. They were bad enough back then when I was a kid and now here is this similar tasting, supersized, in my face thing actually served with its face still attached.
The waitress came by and I could tell she was not impressed by the sloppy mess collecting on my plate as I picked around the skin, bones and other internal delicacies. Vietnamese people seem to get so upset when we leave behind this food shrapnel. They all look at me like I am some sort of nutjob amateur who doesn’t appreciate animal organs, eyeballs, and fat, but hey, they are lucky I even eat as much as I do of some of these foods!
I left the head, skin, and tail behind and a girl at the table next door looked all sad while pointing at it. She asked, “Why no eating? Good for health.” My ass that crap is good for health. Flashbacks to my childhood once again coursed through my head as I remembered my dad eating those anchovies and telling me to eat just one because they are good for you. The only ones who ever seemed excited about that smelly mess were him and the cat who always came begging.
This cá nục turned out to be mackerel rather than anchovies. Now I understand from where our expression “holy mackerel” derives. Some unsuspecting person was served this grilled fish impaled on a stick.