The laminated page has Goi Cuon next to Fritures de Calmars, Bo Luc Lac between Rossini style Tournedos and Agneau. Funny interlingual names like “Ap Chow Bo” and “Ap Chow Hai San” precede English descriptions of stir fries. Don’t bother google “ap chow”. Such innovative term doesn’t exist outside the menu of Bodega Bistro. Just like the dialogues between Jim and Huckleberry Finn, names like these can’t be understood unless you speak it out loud in your head. Ap chow is áp chảo, “press against the pan”, a Vietnamese way of saying pan fry. Why did the chef phonetically transform it into Chinese, while keeping Goi Cuon and Bo Luc Lac true to their original spellings? I don’t know, but I got a chuckle out of it.
The menu alone, however, didn’t strike me as anything unusual. This wasn’t the first time I had to decode a strange name for a familiar dish. Vietnamese menus tend to have such mix between trying to keep the Vietnamese name and (mis)translating it into some other language. The unusual thing was that our thought-to-be-Vietnamese waiter didn’t understand me when I said the dishes’ names in Vietnamese. Then I noticed Chinese songs blasting shuo shuo in the background. And Chinese conversations between the waiters. And, shame on Vietnamese restaurants, very good service.
More on the service part later. But I have a small grudge against Chinese restaurants dishing out Vietnamese food. It’s probably rooted in the powerless distress at the rice-paper-wrapped-and-fried spring roll confused with the Chinese egg roll, or the names of vegetables, fish, and New Year festival with the word “Chinese” attached to it, as if China were the whole Asia. Not that it’s the Chinese’s fault. To my mind, the Chinese have enough dishes of their own, they don’t need to adopt our recipes and innocently serve them without reference. Likewise, I feel slightly vexed by orange chicken and sweet-and-sour pork on Vietnamese menus, things that just mean to attract the safe eaters.
So as soon as I realized Bodega Bistro has a Chinese chef and Chinese staff, I sighed with disappointment. My expectation dropped. My appetite wilted. I didn’t come here for orange chicken and sweet-and-sour pork. Then I remembered that wasn’t what we ordered and just how wrong I was for doubting the place’s authenticity and sincerity. Chinese chef Jimmie Kwok of Bodega did specify that this is Vietnamese food, as he did his best to keep the original spellings, with the exception of “ap chow“.
In fact, he kept more than just the spellings. He kept the flavor, the presentation, and the ingredients. Nem cua is wrapped in rice paper, stuffed with real crab meat, wood ear mushroom, and cellophane noodle (NOT cabbage, thank goodness), served with bún (thin rice vermicelli), rau sống (lettuce and mints), and a gargantuan bowl of nước chấm.
There are floating chili pepper seeds and garlic slices, strings of pickled daikon and carrots, subtle sugar and a squeeze of lemon to temper fish extract’s saltiness, and ginger to counter seafood. The clear sienna dipping liquid elevates the crispy crab rolls and coats the bland vermicelli in flavors. Rice vermicelli and nuoc cham trump pasta aglio e olio, if I may brag.
Just after we slurped clean the last twirl of noodles and sauce and erased all crispy crab rolls’ existence, a staff member came and politely replaced our plates with new ones for the second dish. (Yes, the very nice service I mentioned earlier.) It’s also nice that somehow the staff knew we were sharing and didn’t swarm the table with everything at once. The meat arrived when we were half full and wholly satisfied. Bo luc lac, commonly appear as “shaken beef”, sometimes “beef luk lak” (!), is like philly cheese steak, it simply can’t go wrong. But it can be underseasoned. I’m not sure if this is a difference between Northern and Southern recipes, or if the chef intentionally makes it edible without rice, but Bodega’s bo luc lac is more bland than Lemon Grass‘s bo luc lac. It’s soaked in a light salty wine-and-mushroom-like sauce, served with lemon juice, and it lacks the sweet-and-savory signature of Southern cooking. That aside, the tenderness is superb, and the onion bits melt like candies.
So just what makes authenticity? Is it the name? The ingredients? The cook’s experience? Certainly not the cook’s ethnicity. We came to Bodega looking forward to a Hanoi meal, and we left, looking forward to coming back.
Address: Bodega Bistro
607 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA
(a few blocks away from Herbst Theatre)
Dinner for two (including tax): $32.75