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I have recently fallen in love with the continent of Asia and its food. From Thai spring rolls to Nepalese dhal bhat, from Korean kimchi to Chinese steamed buns, I love it all. But at the moment, Vietnamese is the cuisine that reigns supreme and is what I have been dreaming about day and night. While some might procrastinate on that 10-page paper by watching sitcoms on Hulu or YouTube videos of “Marcel the Shell,” I ogle Google images of banh mi and steaming bowls of pho ga.
One Friday night, in an effort to satiate my craving for Vietnamese, I ventured into St. Louis and found South Grand Boulevard, a street famous for its eateries. On this street I found many Vietnamese restaurants. Not wanting to limit my options, I dined at three different restaurants in the span of three hours. It was pure bliss, let me tell you.
Round 1: Pho Grand
Pho Grand is a true local’s favorite, with a Yelp score that screams good grub. Although many locals say the food has been altered to suit American palates, I still wanted to give this place a go. I started with the lotus root salad and then had a bowl of pho ga. Pho is a style of Vietnamese soup that consists of a rich broth flavored with ginger and garlic, vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeños, and your choice of meat. When ordering, I always go for the chicken because the flavor is much sweeter and I’m not much of a beef person. Pho Grand’s bowl of soup was divine and the broth was clear and flavorful with the perfect accents of ginger. The chicken was seasoned with a Chinese five-spice mixture and hints of anise or cumin. The spice of the jalapeños added some fire to the dish, leaving me feeling warm and happy. The lotus root salad is made up of lotus roots (go figure), cilantro, radish, and carrots soaked in a sweet vinegar sauce. Finally, the dish is topped with dry roasted peanuts. The dish was perfect alongside the hot soup – the cool flavors gave a perfect balance to the meal.
Round 2: Lemongrass
After Pho Grand, my stomach was content, but my soul searched for the harmony found only in a dish called banh mi. I walked over to Lemongrass, the next stop on my culinary tour, in search of these sandwiches. After being seated and given a menu, I found out Lemongrass doesn’t serve them, but the restaurant down the street does. Feeling guilty for sitting in the establishment without ordering anything, I asked for a roasted banana for dessert. As simple as it sounds, the dessert set in front of me was an interesting mix, consisting of sticky rice with a boiled banana and a moat of milky tapioca. Crazy-sounding, but still a pretty lackluster dessert.
Round 3: Truc Lam
Walking into the final stop of the evening, Truc Lam, was like stepping back into the 1970s, complete with faux wooden paneling. The place has the yellow lighting that gives the whole room a heady glow, and the back counter is filled with plastic lotus plants. I ordered two banh mis and sat down at a small table to await my meal. A banh mi is something I think every person should eat at some point in his or her life, for it is the best flavor in the whole world – even better than bacon. Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich that starts with a crunchy French baguette filled with meat of your choice. If it’s really authentic, it’ll have pate topped with vinegar-soaked carrots and diakon radish, jalapeños, and fresh cilantro. The meats are marinated in the house barbeque sauce and typically accented with hoisin and star anise. Some places will add mayonnaise and a fried egg on top. Truc Lam’s version was definitely an authentic dish, with a large slab of pate and ham and all the vegetables and cilantro a girl could want. It was crunchy, spicy, sweet, and absolute heaven.
Being able to travel to such a beautiful country through its food is a true culinary adventure, and that night on South Grand Boulevard definitely put a stamp in my passport.