The Joy Duck Club

Ecstatic as a little girl in a tiara over Huong Binh's Vietnamese authenticity.

It happens to everyone eventually. For some, it is a particular nightmare.No matter how much you get out, how often you dine, how far and wide your tastes range, eventually you'll come across a dish that you have no idea how to eat. There will be implements. There will be ingredients both familiar and strange. There will be plates and bowls and a whole crowd of gawking locals who you suddenly feel are watching you—just waiting for you to put the wrong thing in the wrong place and bring shame to yourself and your people.The old-fashioned version of this fear is the American rube settling down in a fancy French restaurant, faced with the entire batterie of service laid precisely down in ascending rank on either side of the plate, and not knowing what fork is for what. The modern twist is the globe-trotting gastronaut suddenly confronted by some alien arrangement of utensils (or the lack thereof), servingware (or the lack thereof), and food (or in the case of some ultra-modern restaurants, the apparent lack thereof), and not having the faintest clue whether one is meant to eat the injera, poke the fufu, wear the chakin like a bib; or how to eat a cube of seawater gelée when the only obvious utensils are chopsticks and a crab hammer.There are, in the annals of gastronomy, two acceptable ways to deal with this problem: an aggressive approach and a passive one. In the passive method, the flummoxed diner affects an air of cool lassitude and endeavors never to be the first to attack any course—instead sitting back and watching the actions of his or her tablemates in the hope of getting some clue as to how each particular plate relates to the array of implements available. One does not always get the correct information this way (particularly if dining at some sort of mixer where the hostess has a reputation for pissing off her guests by always serving unrecognizable cuisine rather than the steaks and hot dogs that everyone really wants), but it does guarantee that you will never be the only person at table trying to pry open clams with the blade of a barley hatchet or eat soup with an absinthe spoon.The aggressive approach is precisely the opposite. Here, the bewildered guest always acts first and with belligerent élan, attempting to provide those less-forward guests with a convenient example to follow. The aggressive diner gleefully eats gazpacho with his marrow spoon, crushes snails with his oyster mallet, makes Mr. Magoo eyeglasses out of the napkin rings for his friends' amusement, and, should the necessity arise, stabs a romantic rival with the fish knife without concern for its place in the orderly progression of removes. The aggressive method is more polite than the passive one because starting a game of ultimate Frisbee with the ambassador's liner plates implies that you feel comfortable in the surroundings, and any host's primary duty when serving guests dinner is to make them feel comfortable. It is also a lot more fun, because once you stick a cocktail fork up your nose and start demonstrating to the Admiral's wife how an elephant would eat crudités, no one else will feel badly at all about using the soup spoon for the dessert course.The aggressive method is also helped greatly by drunkenness. That way, no matter how troublesome it was when you used all the melon balls, demitasse spoons, and the cook's roast goose to show how Rommel could've prevailed at El Alamein if only he'd been equipped with the proper cantaloupe artillery, the next morning you can just blame it on the whiskey and no one can hold your behavior against you.Many of these tips and tactics for displaying social grace under scrutiny were brought back to me while eating last week at Huong Binh, the excellent Hue-style Central Vietnamese restaurant in the International District. As a professional eater, I have certainly had plenty of experience with foods that confuse or mystify me, and have on various occasions employed both methods for working my way through dinners where I had no earthly idea what was food and what was floral arrangement.Thus I knew immediately what to do when the long platter of bun cha Ha Noi, the side of cha Hue, and a half-dozen accoutrements arrived. Having a long relationship with eating Vietnamese food and traipsing gleefully around the Little Saigons and Asian neighborhoods of a half-dozen cities, I knew that no Vietnamese presentation includes anything purely for show. There is no complicated garniture, no ostentatious display. Everything put before a prospective diner is meant either to be eaten or to convey food from plate to mouth—sometimes both at the same time. So on a purely theoretical level, I understood that everything set in front of me—from the chopsticks and pho spoon to the empty bowl, extra plate, lettuce leaves, three kinds of pork, bamboo, basil leaves, rice noodles, peanuts, and stalk of cilantro—had a purpose.The problem, then, was one of logic and culinary geometry: how to make maximum use of all associated stuff while not making a total fool of myself among the tables of teenagers, the Huong Binh staff having their lunch by the overloaded counter in the back, the elderly women setting down their shopping bags to eat bowls of fish-ball soup, or the two angry Vietnamese ladies behind me, scowling and hissing at each other like two cats over their plates of banh hoi tom.I tried the passive approach—settling back in my chair and pretending to find something fascinating amid the paper lanterns hanging like lysergic acid raindrops from Huong Binh's low ceiling. Across the room, two teenage girls had plates similar to mine, and they, in classic Vietnamese street-food style, were using lettuce leaves to fold up bites of meat and noodles. Cool, then—I reached for the lettuce.Except the lettuce-wrap process didn't account for the superfluity of empty bowls and spoons arrayed before me. The angry women at my back were using their chopsticks to strip grilled shrimp off skewers, dumping them into bowls, adding noodles, peanuts, shreds of lettuce torn with their sharp and manicured nails, twists of basil, eye of newt, and tongue of frog. Like Hamlet's witches, they nattered and stirred and then ate, clacking away with chopsticks, talking around mouthfuls of shrimp and rice noodles, their bowls held up close to their mouths while (I assumed) they called down fell curses on each other and read the fate of Ophelia in their leavings.In the end, I just ate with my fingers. Employing the aggressive approach, I bit into half-slabs of ground Vietnamese ham, steamed first, then fried and served with crisp, beige edges. I wrapped flattened and herbed pork meatballs, rice noodles, and basil in torn leaves of lettuce and shoved them in my mouth. I reached into a deep bowl full of slices of carrot and bamboo swimming in a sweet and vinegary fish sauce and popped slivers of caramelized, grilled pork into my mouth with fingers already sticky, then washed it all down with green tea while I spooned the vinegar sauce into an empty bowl and added a little bit of everything else I had left in front of me. I had no whiskey on which to blame my gluttony, but that didn't matter. Everything tasted and smelled so good and worked with such simple, unadorned brilliance that I couldn't help myself.This was my third time through Huong Binh in five days. And if the family who's run Huong Binh for years in its double-decker Little Saigon strip-mall space—among the Vietnamese CD and DVD stores, the pepper wholesalers, tooth mechanics, and beauty salons—weren't used to me by now, they never would be.Banh beo are steamed rice-flour pancakes, topped with ground shrimp of bright traffic-cone orange and green scallions like shards of jade. You pour fish sauce over the top and cut off bites with a spoon. The taste is like eating shrimp Jell-O garnished with pencil shavings, only delicious. It's my favorite breakfast at Huong Binh.The banh hoi are woven baskets of noodles served with shrimp or pork meatballs or grilled pork; the banh uot are wide, thick noodles—actually rice-flour crepes cut into strips—topped with the unbelievably good chopped, grilled pork that the kitchen here puts on everything, with savory pork meatballs that squeak when you bite into them, with grilled shrimp fresh from the grates, or with ground shrimp formed into balls and speared on sticks of sugar cane. There are weekday specials, like the bun cha Ha Noi, and a full spread of weekend specials—everything from a chicken pho and pork and black-mushroom crepes to congee with blood sausage, pork tongue, liver, and ear. Service is fast, and on a Saturday morning the wait at the door can be 20 minutes for a table pressed close among the jars of dried mangosteen, marinating eggs, and tubs of Vietnamese candy.What Huong Binh does is authentic, predominately Central Vietnamese food, much of it in the classic imperial Hue style—large platters meant to be broken down into small plates and bowls, heavily spiced and carefully prepared. This was once the food of kings and princesses, the court dinners of Vietnamese royalty. The style became so popular that it altered an entire regional cuisine before filtering out and becoming one of the baselines of American Vietnamese cuisine.Huong Binh is not a pho shop; they serve one variety—pho ga—only on weekends. Not an inch of its menu is influenced by the modern, nouvelle French-Vietnamese style. There are no baguettes, no crisp crepes, no paté. The dumplings (banh bot loc) are made of tapioca, stuffed with ground shrimp and slivers of candy-sweet pork, then steamed to bubblegum chewiness and topped with dried ground shrimp. The banh beo chen is split into five tiny crepes, each served in an individual bowl, garnished with ground shrimp and scallions, and swimming in fish sauce with scallions.The first time I saw one of these, I drank it down like a shot because I am an idiot. The second one I ate daintily with chopsticks and a spoon. Frankly, idiocy tasted better.My favorite seat at Huong Binh is at the middle table along the left-hand wall. Sit there and look out the windows, and other than a single advertisement for a furniture doctor, there is no English visible on any building. The crowds that pass back and forth are predominantly Asian. Taken together, the low-slung gray cement buildings, bright awnings, and overcrowded parking lot make it appear that—for a $10 lunch of rice noodles and pork and a tall glass of iced coffee over sweetened condensed milk that's like drinking sweet, dark rocket fuel—I have also slipped through some kind of rabbit hole and ended up at a street-corner cafe on Hue City's Cong Trang Road.On a damp Saturday afternoon, I sat there and watched the steam rise over the blacktop and the people jockey for position as the floor filled and the staff came up on its collective toes to sprint between tables without ever seeming to run. I ate bun mang vit—a bowl of duck broth with rice noodles and bits of bamboo, served with half a duck on the side, rudely hacked into pieces but lovely, golden-brown, and topped with roasted skin and fat. The trick (I think) is to pick the duck meat off the bone with chopsticks and drop it into the soup, adding shallots and noodles to the mix. Or perhaps it is to drink the soup plain and dip the bits of mangled, delicious, greasy duck into the gingered nuoc mam sauce served on the side.I do both, eventually giving up on the chopsticks entirely and gnawing at the bones like a dog. It is that good, and available only twice a week, only until the kitchen sells out of ducks.On a quiet Monday I request the same table, and watch a little girl in a princess tiara walk hand-in-hand with her father across the parking lot in the rain. I am eating tapioca dumplings and cha Hue, waiting for skewers of ground shrimp on sugar cane and a nest of rice noodles to go with it.Once they get to the sidewalk, the girl breaks away and makes straight for the ancient, dirty ice-cream cooler set up in front of the windows at Huong Binh, alongside the bins of candy and the jars of preserved and sugared tropical fruits. She goes up on her tiptoes to look inside, shouts something back to her father, and then starts bouncing, her hands pressed together, pleading for something sweet.I know the feeling completely. I watch as her father peels a couple wet dollar bills off a thin fold from his pocket, hands them down to her, and fishes out a popsicle from the cooler. The little girl straightens her crown, walks in through the door, and regally hands the money to one of the young staff working the floor. When he comes back with her change, the little girl makes it almost to the door before shoving her popsicle in the air and shouting "Yes!"—a sign of absolute victory and joy.Inside, my banh hoi chao tom arrives. It smells of grill char and the sharp sting of fish sauce, of warm noodles and bright scallions. The taste is so simple and perfect that as I watch the girl pirouette into the rain holding her popsicle aloft, I kind of want to join her—one shrimp skewer in my hand, a crazy-happy smile of absolute joy on my face.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check

  Cha Hue  $2.75

  Banh beo  $6

  Bun cha Ha Noi  $9

  Com Huong Binh  $7.75

  Bun mang vit   8

  Banh hoi chao tom  $8

 
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