The Incredible Adventures of Gourmet Gal

Thursday, October 19, 2006




No?! Then your bowl is in for a treat.

Pho is like the other, other beef noodle soup for the Vietnamese. In America, they are generally big bowls of aromatic soup containing slightly chewy rice noodles and various types of beef (raw, cooked, flank, eye of round, brisket, etc.). The order also comes with a handful of fresh bean sprouts, springs of Asian/Thai basil with mint, and wedges of lemon on the side to add crunchy texture, luscious fragrance, and acidic excitement to the whole shibam. I was told that the real authentic pho in Vietnam is much simpler than the ones we get in America; just noodle, slices of beef, and savory broth. After all, pho is considered more of a breakfast food or snack than a main course in its native land.

For me, the key to a successful bowl of pho is the soup base. It has to be piping hot and intensely flavored with a lingering hint of sweetness. I always take a sip of the natural broth (sans herbs and lemon juice) as soon as my bowl is brought onto the table. The first impression is everything. One sip determines the fate of the pho.

Then, I like to place the bean sprouts and the herbs in the bowl, and burry them along with any raw slices of beef under the noodles. The heat from the soup will further cook the raw ingredients and release the fragrance of the herbs. While waiting for this one minute process, I like to concoct my dipping sauce by mixing sweet hoisin sauce (the dark brown squeeze bottle on the table) with Vietnamese hot chilly sauce (the bright red squeeze bottle, also on the table). Then I would take a bite of the rice noodles to judge if they were au dente. Only after that, would I dip the meat of my choice ( normally the raw/ barely cooked ones first) into the dipping sauce and savor it with a smile. Mmmmm, it's time to take another spoonful of the heavenly broth.

Very Tampopo, don't you think?

Pho Bang Restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens gets a gold star for its reliably good pho. With eight branches located in NY, LA, AZ, and TX, this chain restaurant provides fresh and sumptuous Vietnamese fairs at a reasonable price. The one in Queens is a glass window-shield triangle situated on the edge of a Chinese supermarket's parking lot which is adjacent to a line of Hong Kong, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants. You can literally smell the sweet scent of basil, lemon grass, and simmering beef bone soup base permeating out of the restaurant from three blocks away.

The place was always packed. On the Monday night we were there, a line had accumulated by the door even though it was only 6:30 P.M. But the service was efficient - if not a bit brusque - we were seated within five minutes.

The appetizers featured standard American favorites such as Cha Gio (Vietnamese crispy spring rolls) and Goi Cuon (Vietnamese non-fried summer rolls). The main courses were divided into sections of Pho, Banh Hoi (angel hair noodles), Bun (rice vermicelli), and Com Dia (rice dishes). We ordered the followings:

CHA GIO (Vietnamese crispy spring rolls) $3.75 (for 4)
TAI NAM SACH (combination rice noodles, beef soup w/fresh eye of round, navel, tendon and omosa) $4.35 (regular bowl)
COM SUON NUONG (grilled pork chop on rice) $4.25
RAU MUONG ZAO TOI (Chinese watercress with garlic) $6.25

The deep fried Vietnamese egg rolls were satisfying with a mouthful of crispy rice paper and a mixture of pork, chicken, crabmeat, black mushroom & clear noodles. I loved to wrap them inside lettuce leaves with a sprig of mint, and dip the fat bundle into the sugary vinegar sauce. The result was a happy marriage of hot and cool, savory and sweet.

J's grilled pork chops arrived glistening with fresh grilled marks and faintly charred edges - all signs of a great barbeque. The lemon grass and fish sauce mixture, which the pork chops were marinated in produced such a deep layer of sultry tang that I couldn't help but gnaw on the bones like an eager puppy.

The Chinese watercress sautéed with garlic was prolific but not excellent. It was a little under seasoned - perhaps more salt, or even better, if some shrimp paste was added. Shrimp paste for the South East Asians is like anchovy paste for the Italians. The fermented pink paste has a potently pungent scent - I'm talking about the smell of rotten fish mixed with soiled blue cheese. A simple teaspoon mixed into sautéed Chinese watercress would yield such a sumptuously robust taste, that it's totally worth having a jar in your kitchen and drive everyone in the house insane.

The dessert menu showed the French colonial influence on Vietnamese cuisine, from Ca Phe Sua Nong (espresso special filter condensed milk coffee) and Soda Sua Hot Ga (soda with egg york and condensed milk) to Nhan Nhuc (dried longan in syrup served with ice) and Soda Xi Muoi (salty plum soda). I opted for:

CHE BA MAU (three colors sweet beans, jelly mung beans & coconut milk, served with ice) $1.75

It arrived in a see-through glass with red, green, white - three colors of zig-zag-edged small strips of jellies - and sweet read beans, mung beans puree with dense coconut milk. What a cheerful sight! I slurred the mixture happily while J wrinkled his nose. "No thank you," He shook his head before I even thought about offering him some. I loved it. It was milky and sugary - just what I liked after a toothsome meal.

As we looked around, almost every table had ordered a bowl of pho - something that J had a hard time understanding. He thinks that the only time a person should craze for hot soup is either when they are not feeling well, or it's freezing cold outside. Apart from the practical reasons for pho's existence in Vietnam - that the weather is always scorching hot, it is important to have sufficient water and salt intake - I think it is just plain and simple why everyone's addicted to pho, IT TASTES GOOD! And until the day J achieves this enlightment, Gourmet Gal's incredible adventures shall continue.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Red beans are red.
Lotus roots are beige.
Mooncakes are tricky.
And so are the Chinese.

Red bean paste has a maroon to brown color and tastes slightly grainy and heavier than the cream colored lotus paste. It also tends to be cheaper than the lotus version. That being sad, it is totally possible that you've been tricked by my cousins in California.

Friday, October 13, 2006


So what is a moon cake?

A moon cake is something of a mystical confection made by technologically advanced Asians from the moon. They are typically round or rectangular puck-shaped pastries. The relatively thin, chewy crust surrounds a rich, dense, filling of sweet bean or nut paste with salted yokes - totally freaking awesome. They are almost always savored in small wedges with green tea while viewing the full moon with your dysfunctional family during the mid-Autumn festival. Modern variations of moon cakes have a glutinous rice skin, similar to that of a mochi. These addictive freaks-of-nature are known as "snow-skin moon cakes" or "ice-skin moon cakes".

In the early nineties, Haagen-Dazs followed on this innovation and created ice-cream moon cakes. I myself have released a restraining order against them for fear of an overdose. Because of the high lard content in traditional moon cakes (well why do you think they taste so good?), there are healthier versions of moon cakes made with yogurt, jelly, and sacrilegious fat-free ice cream. In my opinion, pork fat rules. And seriously, If you want to be a real Asian, you gotta eat the nasty stuff.

During the mid-Autumn festival which falls around early or mid October - depending on the moon calendar, you can find moon cakes in Chinese supermarkets and bakeries. They come in colorful tin boxes with drawings of super FOB (fresh-of-the-boat) looking girls on them. Check the expiration dates carefully since the rich fillings are prone to spoilage. I tend to buy the locally produced ones for fear of food poisoning.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006




I am such a lucky girl.
I live within walking distance of the best pizza parlor in the borough.
Nick's pizza is no joke.
Even at the end of the meal.
I was blown away, oh like, 100 feet.
By a phenomenal canola!

As I'm writing this, my mouth is yielded with the memorable taste of quality fresh mozzarella, tangy tomato sauce, vibrant basil leaves, and big, round, slices of sultry Italian meatballs. My sensory memory is so aroused that it's practically having a seizure.


Located in the heart of beautifully historic Forest Hill section of Queens, Nick's Pizza provides a reasonably priced amazing dining experiences for both adults and children. This famed spot has the look of a casually hip, much-talked-about Park Slope-ish hangout. The combination of wood paneled floors, copper tinted ceiling, and original artwork showcased in antique frames made me feel instantly upgraded to a higher place.

Yuppy couples with their even yuppier children dined on the 70s style tables watching Latino men in starched white chef uniforms, expertly maneuvering oven open flames in the open kitchen. The little girl (literally dressed in a red riding hood) from next table stood on her chair and stared at me with her smart blue eyes. I smiled at her and imagined her asking me in the most tender voice, "So do you rent or own?"

Thank God she didn't.

The menu was classic and straight forward. Small ($11) or large ($13) pies with various selections of toppings at $2 each. We decided quickly.


Our waitress was pleasant and efficient. The pie arrived in less than ten minutes. Its surface oozed with glisten and permeated with aroma. I bit into the crusty thin bottom, and everything just harmonized and melted in my mouth. The mozzarella was so fresh that I could literally hear the cows mooing. Light and packed with intensity, this pizza was definitely one of the best I've ever had. And I highly recommend the intensely flavored meatball topping.

Three slices and a doggy bag later, I was ready for a bit of sweets. The dessert menu was also simple. Canoli ($4.50), Tiramisu ($5.5), Brownie ($3.5), and Junior's Cheesecake ($4.00).

You guessed it right, J wanted the cheesecake. BUT WHY WOULD YOU WANT A JUNIOR'S CHEESECAKE AT AN ITALIAN PIZZERIA?! So I went ahead and ordered the followings for us. Too bad.


The Canoli arrived in a small oval cream ceramic plate. Very Euro-chic. Chopped pistachios and powder sugar sprinkled on top of the soft cream seeping out of the canola shell presented a cheerful visual. I picked it up gingerly and gave it a shot.

I thought I saw angels.

My world had been forever changed by this little devil.


The shell was as delightful and luminous as Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It carried no weight and imparted a delicate elegance. The filling tasted tender, milky, and saucy as hell. I was almost in tears by the time I finished the plate. It was indeed the most amazing canola I've ever had.


In comparison, the tiramisu was merely excellent. Lightly sweet cream covered a spongy layer of cake. Very tasty and satisfying. I sipped at my steaming, smooth cappuccino and beamed at J, while he stared jealously at the little red riding hood licking at her Junior's cheesecake. Hey, no one said it was going to be easy. And the life of an aspiring profession eater's spouse surely sucked even more. Or does it?

Friday, October 06, 2006


Sure enough, it's that time of the year again. Have fun gorging moon cakes and pomeloes tonight! As for the origins of this Chinese holiday, check out