By Gene Gonzalez
Angeles City seems to be full of surprises. When I took the back way to our culinary school in Theresa subdivision, I saw this restaurant called Viet Garden right across The People’s Gym on Rizal Extension. Conveniently close to Nepo Mall and our school office, we decided to check this place out since it was walking distance.
We asked for starters of fresh spring rolls and the parcels of fresh noodles and shrimps were tightly and correctly wrapped exposing the shrimps in an array outside the vegetable and noodle interior and a chive sticking out on the corner. We were given a nuoc mam cham or a light fish sauce dressing that had the correct balance of light saltiness, sweetness, and acid. Though simple, this sauce if not well balanced will render the flavors wrong (many Pinoy cooks will either make this too sour, too sweet, or too over powering with fish sauce and in this dish authenticity was reinforced which built my trust and anticipation on the next dish that would show true Vietnamese flavors. This was the beef pho and at first glance, I was immediately impressed by the clarity of the soup. (My Vietnamese teacher always stresses the need for correct temperatures in starting and simmering to create a full flavored broth.) The soup was not only clear but very tasty and redolent of the sweet wood spices such as cloves, star anise, cinnamon and, thao qua or black cardamom. The broth is as good as anything you can get on the city streets of Ho Chi Minh but then the beef portion is a little too sparse so that I would recommend a bowl with heftier or extra crispy beef portions even if the client pays a little more. Coming close to authenticity are the table sauces for the pho which is the duet of sriracha and a less sweet version of Chinese hoisin.
My companions being rice eaters on this first visit opted for caramelized chicken which had that good balance of sugar and fish sauce glazing the pieces of chicken wings. Also we had bun thitnuong which was a grilled pork and noodle salad top with fresh and pickled vegetables with herbs and crispy shallots.
Being satisfied with the food, we decided to be more daring on a next visit and try more items in their menu. Rochelle, the owner of the place gave us some suggestions like the stingray salad as a starter. The salad dressing for this, though it was a nuoc mam cham had a slightly higher acidity perhaps to foil the strong flavor of the dried stingray which had curiously interesting textures considering stingray is mostly cartilage tissue that was the main crunchy texture together with the fresh and pickled vegetables that gave a different crunch when taken altogether. I would definitely recommend this salad as even in Vietnam, few restaurants would offer this. For starters too, I was recommended the ban xeo, a crispy crepe that one rolls in lettuce or other herbs and dunked in nuoc mam cham dip. The Viet Garden’s version is quite decent because many of those that claim a good dish like this you get a limpy, oily omelet, and miss the point. I like the in this country serve you a limpy, oily dish. I have a seemingly holy grail search in our Vietnamese eateries in the country that would serve me a bubbly crisp, light and multi textured banh xeo that many banh xeo restaurants serve in Uncle Ho’s country. For our main dishes we decided to have the bun thit nuong sao which had all the elements of the noodle salad put together such as fried spring rolls, curried pork, marinated chicken, pickled vegetables, crispy shallots all integrated with rice noodles and a pouring of nuoc mam cham dressing. These were all washed down with cafe sua da or iced drip coffee with condensed milk and black grass jelly with basi seeds whose seeds had an interesting texture as a gelatinous exterior is firmed by soaking dried basil seeds in water.
Having no more room for dessert, we decided to skip and ask Rochelle if she was Vietnamese, she said no but she said her mother-in-law who married a Pampangueño was. (She must have been the very fair skinned lady attending to some customers the first day we tried this out and I guess we need to visit again because we missed out on the dessert list.)
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