You know how some dishes just instantly come up when you think of certain places? Those are the dishes that always get served when you go on tours to the region they’re associated with, like barbecue in Texas, crawfish in Louisiana, crab in Maryland, clam in the little island Nantucket of Massachusetts. Well, in the deep south Mekong delta of Vietnam, where there are more rivers and canals than Venice, freshwater fish multiply like crazy and the countryside inhabitants make fish dishes like crazy. But for some reason, the name “Mekong Delta” is always linked with “cá kho tộ” (fish simmered in claypot). Why?
The fish (usually catfish) is cut up into thick sections across the body, skin and bone intact (scales off, though), simmered in fish sauce and caramel sauce until it turns beautifully brown inside and out. The mixed sauce is thick and savory, it’s sweet, it’s salty, it can spike up your senses if you add a fillip of chili pepper. Some might argue that fish can taste good by themselves, but this sauce alone would make every mouth water. I’d take the sauce and the sauce-soaked skin anytime over the flesh.
Then again, I had never thought about eating it when I was in Vietnam. Footless animals don’t appeal to me, footless animals with stinky needle bones ready to get stuck in my esophagus appeal to me even less. Footless animals with stinky needle bones were also too abundant, too cheap, and too easy to get when I was there, that boredom won over appreciation of taste. Pick any little food shack for workers on the streets of Saigon, any family-owned eatery by the side of the highway, any book about Southern Vietnamese cuisine, you’re bound to find two things: cá kho tộ and canh chua. It became trite. Little did I know that one day I’d only find it again in an expensive restaurant in Berkeley.
A few restaurants in Bellaire advertise claypot fish in their menus, but usually say they’re out when you order. It could just be because the dish takes quite some time to make, and scrubbing away those little clay pots with caramelized sauce and fish isn’t really a desirable job. So I was ecstatic when they actually had it at Le Regal (just one good meal after another). The pot came out hot and sizzling, two slabs of fish steaks snuggled in the bubbling golden brown addiction. Fish had never smelled so good. The order does not come with rice, but plain white rice is a must, unless you want to slowly take in nibbles and licks overpacked with flavors. Be sure to save a bit of rice to clean the pot after all the fish is gone.
Price: about $12-13. (This menu is completely out of date on the price, and does not have all the dishes currently served, but nonetheless it can give you an idea of what they have.)
Address: Le Regal
2126 Center Street, Berkeley, CA 94704