The Chinese brew up amazing hot pots. There's the Northern lamb hot pot, with its long-reduced broth and robust sesame dipping sauce. Sichuan hot pots capped with a layer of obscenely fragrant, lip-numbing chile oil. High-tech Taiwanese buffets whose refrigerated bars house dozens of kinds of seafood, meats, and vegetables, and whose electric coils heat bowls of clear stock for poaching them all in.
But the Vietnamese love hot pots, too, and after centuries of tweaking theirs are no more Chinese than pho. A meal of lau, as hot pots are called in Vietnamese, can mean anything from huddling around a bubbling pot set over a charcoal brazier on the sidewalk to dining with real tables and chairs, combo grill-soup pot apparatuses, and cups upon cups of sweet rice wine.
The nondescript Pho Hoa Hung specializes in northern Vietnamese style pho, bun (cold noodles), and other workaday dishes, none of which I tried. That's because Pho Hoa Hung has a special snack menu for the crowds of men who gather late at night to watch ESPN and drink Heineken. They're ordering from the laminated sheet of paper taped up on the counter, all in Vietnamese, and available only after 3:00 p.m.
I arrived with an Anglo tipster who'd already sussed out the existence of the Vietnamese-language menu. Somewhat spottily translated by our server, it appears to list a few familiar dishes a sunny chicken salad with shredded cabbage and herbs; thinly sliced raw beef rolled in toasted rice powder with a bowl of shrimp-paste sauce for dipping as well as steamed duck blood, pork liver with apples (best on a Tuesday, we were informed on a not-Tuesday), and goat carpaccio.
All of which are tantalizing, if daring. But you just need to point to the first two items, lau de ngau pin, or goat hot pot in two sizes. Out comes a burner, a pot filled with a dark-brown soup and chunks of meat, a plate of raw baby bok choy, a heap of rice noodles, and little bowls of a tart chile-and-fish-sauce mixture. You cook the vegetables in the broth as it heats and put the rice noodles in your bowl. The goat already has been braised, so within minutes you're slurping noodles and pulling moist strips of meat from between the layers of fat that cocoon it. But the genius of the hot pot is its stock, lightly sweetened with dates and invigorating Chinese herbs and, thanks to the gelatin that leaches from the goat bones while they simmer, a creamy mouthfeel.
Quite a few of the dishes on Binh Minh Quan's menu probably Oakland's most comprehensive list of South Vietnamese food require that you pluck, stir, season, wrap, and dip your food. On my visit several weeks ago the three men across the way required an extra table to contain all their plates and paraphernalia, and had we not ordered two cook-at-the-table dishes, forcing the cooks to stage our dinner, we too would have needed more room. There was table space to spare, because despite the thousands of dollars Binh Minh Quan's Jenny Tang spent transforming it from a cluttered hole-in-the-wall to a real restaurant when she took it over from her mother, it's still located on the edge of the Bermuda Triangle between Chinatown and Lake Merritt. In other words, it's slow at night.
Which is unfortunate. Even though the restaurant serves frog and boar, any newbie would feel comfortable walking through the forest of bamboo and orchids inside the front door to reach the restaurant's solid tables, where the chopstick holders dispense sage-, gold-, and rust-colored chopsticks to match the newly repainted walls.
Binh Minh Quan's lau canh chua ca (sour hot pot with catfish, which you can replace with shrimp or chicken) isn't a traditional hot pot, but rather a classic Mekong Delta soup served lau style. There's a deep satisfaction in watching it come to a boil and seeing raw fish, tomatoes, pineapple, bean sprouts, and fresh loofah gourd soften and soak up the coral broth, sweet-tart from tamarind and tomatoes.
The canh chua, however, was my table's least favorite course, possibly because we could have waited a little longer to let the flavors marry or spiced up the broth more ourselves. But when you start the meal wrapping elegantly deep-fried imperial rolls and lacy banh xeo crepes in lettuce and mint leaves, followed by a lotus-root, shrimp, and pork salad that tasted as light and vivid as a Monet, followed with slices of sesame-marinated venison cooked at the table in butter and rolled up with herbs in rice paper, anything less than lobster and truffles would constitute an anticlimax.
Last year I reviewed the "beef seven ways" meal at New Pagolac on International and 12th, but I returned for its lau. Several months ago the original owner of the seven-year-old restaurant, a charming woman in her seventies, reclaimed the restaurant from the people who had been running it. The renewed New Pagolac hasn't lost its Formica-and-tile ambiance, nor the romance of its brightly colored paintings and big-screen television, but it seems busier these days. Half the tables had ordered basins of pho, while the other half cracked crabs and dipped raw beef into iron pots of rice-wine vinegar.
The menu advertises four hot pots goat, catfish, duck, and combination. Since beef seven ways really is New Pagolac's specialty, the cooks don't always have all four on hand. The owner urged us away from the duck (out) toward the combination hot pot, still a fine way to spend an evening. We received a burner and a wok-sized bowl brimming with a reddish stock upon which floated scallions, thin rounds of sweet Chinese sausage, and chile oil. One platter displayed a dozen whole prawns, nobbly book tripe, squid, spongy white fish balls, and paper-thin slices of raw beef, all glisteningly fresh. Another plate held bok choy, tofu, and a tangle of wiry vermicelli. There were two of us and enough food for four sumo wrestlers. We dumped some tripe, fish balls, tofu, and noodles into the soup to simmer for a while, and swished the shrimp and calamari through the broth just long enough for their flesh to firm up.
During the first hour of the meal, I found the soup too thin. Chicken stock seasoned with a commercial blend of lemongrass, tamarind, lemon, and brown sugar, it echoed the canh chua only vaguely spoonfuls of a sweet bean sauce and nuoc cham (lime, sugar, and fish sauce) intensified its flavors. However, the longer we slurped noodles, peeled shrimp, and plucked vegetables out of the bubbling broth, the better it got. We were simmering down, too, eating slower and talking slower, growing less and less conscious of the restaurant around us as the steam and spices did their work. It was pouring when we got there and when we left, but I sauntered back to the car paying no mind. Just a little rain, after all.
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