Authenticity is slippery. At least as slippery as flat rice noodles in a big bowl of Rang Dong's pho, sunk at the bottom of a broth so dark it's like diluted burnt caramel. "A Vietnamese person from the north would say, 'What the hell is going on? That's not right,'" said Andrea Nguyen, Santa Cruz author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. "They must be roasting the bones," she speculated by phone, "more like a French approach." Bone roasting isn't unheard of in Saigon, where Rang Dong's owner Thang Bui grew up. But, Nguyen said, most Viet cooks don't do it.
Bui, owner of the year-old Vietnamese restaurant, whose broad windows look out on Oakland's Chinatown, raised the specter of authenticity when I called him. He said he'd been to a few local crossover Vietnamese places, restaurants that modernize the cuisine for mostly non-Viet eaters. He didn't mention names, but Bui seemed appalled by the breezy iconoclasm of the very idea of crossover, not to mention the ballsiness of prices that dangle somewhere in the stratosphere, at least according to the rules of mom-'n'-pops. Not authentic enough, Bui implied, with an air of dismissal that seemed to go a few degrees beyond gentle.
Andrea Nguyen's point is that authenticity is highly subjective. "The truth is that Vietnamese food is evolving all the time," she said. Bui doesn't seem to have much to say about culinary evolution, at least not when it comes to Rang Dong's epic menu. "It's food we've been making for two thousand years," he said.
Even if he's laying it on thick about Rang Dong's bimillennial pedigree, there's no denying that its dishes taste convincingly old-school. Especially the noodle soups, a category known as mon nuoc, or "watery dishes," Nguyen says. Rang Dong's caramel-dark pho is a flawless specimen, and just about as nonwatery a mon nuoc as they come.
For all the presumed bone-roasting at the heart of Rang Dong's broth, it isn't the taste of browned proteins that comes through clearest. The broth is a heady distillation you taste partly in your sinuses, like the residue of incense clinging to a college crash pad. It's perfect hot-weather pho, more sensation than substance, with a ghost of fragrance that seems as perfume-y as rose water. Infusions of cinnamon, star anise, and cloves come together to form a single, blended effect, with some funky shading at the edges from fish sauce, and intensified with the sweetness of what's probably yellow rock sugar. If you're used to poorly made pho, versions based on broth that's been stingy with its bones or stretched out with extra water, or broths that emphasize the animal edge of meat stock, this one can seem flowery and delightful. If you have less patience for opulence, it might seem over-embroidered: a bit too syrupy, and with too many sweet spices.
Fortunately, slurpy noodles and meaty garnishes have a way of dragging full-on opulence back to earth. Pho tai, gan a version with thin slices of beef poaching in the broth and a clump of frosty-looking tendon roots itself in an appreciation of the animal. Bun rieu, a round-rice-noodle soup listed as a house specialty, delves in something more delicate and far freakier. In Vietnam, it's a tomato soup often made with crabs from the rice fields, but this one is based on shrimp: a broth, I figure, made with shrimp shells and flavored with a smear of fermented shrimp sauce and a bit of ground-up shrimp meat. Not a field crab in sight, but it's a soup with enough strangeness to seem authentic without them.
That strangeness comes from small bricks of congealed pork blood half-submerged in the orange liquid, mingling with golden cubes of fried tofu and a section of gently curled ribs with soft-textured meat. They're odd-looking, but the blood cubes have a delicate taste and firm custard texture, like liver, but without the graininess. Eaten with bits of earthy, bitter rau rahm long, pointy-leaved Vietnamese coriander heaped onto mung sprouts and cabbage on the garnish plate the cubes get more likable the more you eat, a meditative shadow to the shrill acidity of the tomato-spiked broth.
Walk yourself back from the brink of freaky with easy-to-love pho ga, chicken pho. Its broth was just as dark as the beef version, with just as much rock-sugar-enhanced fragrance, but it contained pillowy hunks of white meat. Whatever flavor they might have had melded into the broth, but the texture had some genuine moisture.
Even though Rang Dong's watery dishes rule, good stuff lurks on the dry side, too. Bi cuon, shredded pork rolled into rice skins, hit multiple points of perfection. The taut, elastic wrappers played up the shagginess of poached pork strands. Lush mint leaves worked off leguminous mung bean sprouts, a mashup of the fragrant and the earthy. It's the same dynamic that rocks the pho here.
Other dishes strike single notes, some of them big and blaring. Such an intensity of sweet and darkly yeasty flavors swirled around catfish stewed in clay pot, ca bong lau kho to, that I could manage only small, rice-muffled bites at a time. The thin, small slices of fish were in a thick, pepper-flecked Vietnamese caramel sauce with the fierce, salty bite of fish sauce like, tons of fish sauce. It was a dish with the outlines of some delicious, sticky condiment. A similar richness clung to dau hu xa ot, tofu first shallow-fried and then tossed with vegetables in a lemongrass-infused sauce of syrupy intensity. It had the nicely curdled skin and meaty chew that tofu develops in hot oil, but hefty tannins leaching out of over-infused aromatics made it bitter. It was hard to eat more than a few bites before retreating to some other dish for relief.
Like the superfragrant pho, these are bold dishes, with throbbing flavors unlike the refined cooking of the crossover Viet places Thang Bui doesn't have much patience for. Love them or just kind of like them, Rang Dong's dishes have a convincing kind of heft, and outlines large enough to seem plausibly authentic. Anyway, Nguyen says, the true test of tradition is whether something tastes good. The food here pulls it off.