Kim Son’s Tet in woven baskets

*Guest post in Vietnamese by my Mom, translated by me*

Back in the day, I seldom ate from street stalls or vendors’ baskets, my conscience imprinted with my mother’s unmovable doubt on the street food’s cleanliness. Nonetheless, I scurry with no hesitation to make it to Kim Son for lunch today, just because the TV news last night showed that Kim Son has a 9-day New Year food festival where the goodies are sold in baskets, mimicking the vendor stalls in Vietnam.

Like usual, the display is a buffet style, but this week the dining hall is decorated with flowers, fruits, and Tet greetings, the food selection is also larger and more interesting than normal days. I notice thịt kho and dưa giá (slow braised pork and pickled bean sprout, two traditional Tet savory dishes), bánh xèo (sizzling crepe), bánh bèo (water fern banh), bánh bột lọc (translucent banh) bánh cống (mung bean fried muffin).

In the baskets lie a few types of xôi, bánh tét, and mứt. A tightening mix of homesickness and joy rushes through me as I see woven baskets, bamboo shoulder poles, and the waxy green banana leaves holding and covering morsels of Tet.

We load our first plate with seven-course beef, though the kitchen churns out only four: grilled beef (bò nướng vỉ), beef loaf (bò chả đùm), lolot beef (bò nướng lá lốt), and beef sausage in omental fat casing (bò mỡ chài). The little pinky-length fat beef sausages are extraordinarily tender, grilled on medium fire and so well seasoned they have the sweet smell of talents.

Meanwhile, my husband chooses the restaurant’s recommended special of the day: grilled snail sausage in banana leaves. I don’t like snails but have a taste anyway just out of curiosity. It is slightly spicy, but I get blown away. There is no hint of the wet and grassy snail scent that used to give me goosebumps when I was little. The banana leaf wrapping protects the velvety sausages from the burnt smell of open fire grilling, and gives it a sweet green aroma of summer breeze. As much as I like fish, I must admit these are better than the Indonesian fish sausages I’ve had a few months ago.

Another special is bánh canh cua Nam Phổ. I only learned about Nam Phổ, a village in central Vietnam, and its famous udon-like noodle soup from books, so I am overjoyed to see the real thing on the menu today. Bits of crab meat amidst chubby slick chunks of banh canh in a scarlet broth rich of crab sauce is the loveliest sight of all noodle soups. Banh canh Nam Pho, unlike banh canh of the South, doesn’t have loads of shrimp or pork, the broth isn’t starkly clear, yet its thickness delivers just a mellow natural sweetness. The first bite reveals little taste, but the second, the third, and a few sips of the broth in between start to sweep in waves of riverbank wind and meadow fragrance.

The country lunch sets us back $35.75 and 90 minutes. As we get ready to leave at 12:30, the parking lot gets ready for a massive lion dance and firecracker show. The sight of sixteen gaudy lions and hundred-meter long red squib strings and their boisterous sounds follow me all the way home, as I think of how we, the Asian expats, try to bring with us our lunar new year and our motherlands wherever we go.

Address: Kim Son Restaurant
10603 Bellaire Blvd
Houston, TX 77072
(281) 598-1777

This post is included in the February 2011 edition of Delicious Vietnam, a blogging event organized by Anh from A Food Lover’s Journey and Hong and Kim from Ravenous Couple.

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