By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
you win by losing. If U.S.-backed
forces had won the war in Vietnam,
where would today's budget diner
go for true scratch cooking in
America? But because the Viet
Cong won, hundreds of thousands
of Southeast Asian refugees exported
a rich cuisine that still does
things the old fashioned way.
Their timing was perfect. When
the Vietnamese Diaspora began,
America was converting to fast-food-nation
status. Now processed foods account
for three-fourths of all food
sales and few chefs outside four-star
kitchens bother cooking anything
In fact, scratch cooking has
been defined down. Most folks
think they are "cooking from
scratch" when they mix canned
ingredients with instant stock
mixes and maybe add a little something
fresh. Probably because Southeast
Asia was a French colony, Vietnamese
cuisine is the slowest in Asia.
Instant noodle soup mixes may
have conquered Japan, Korea and
China, but in Des Moines, Nga
Tran thinks that eight hours of
simmering is way too fast for
"That is what the professionals
told us when we started the restaurant,
'cook the bones eight hours,'
but my children know better. If
they like it the way we make it
at home, cooking 24 hours, that
is what I want do for my customers,
too," she says of her rich
beef broths, which she makes from
whole shins that have been cut
into small sections.
They transport her pho, the
"sine qua non" of Vietnamese
cooking, into epiphanies on the
tongue. Nga's family (two daughters
also help run the café) came
to America from Hue, via Laos
and France. She describes her
cuisine as northern Vietnamese
crossed with Laotian. She served
fresh-sliced beef pho with a cut
of meat too tender to be out after
dark. Rice noodles, fresh lime,
Thai basil, chili peppers and
bean sprouts finish our favorite
version of pho, others are available
with seafood, meatballs, tripe
and won tons.
Because of the hot weather,
we've been visiting 777 for cooler
treats lately. Tran aptly calls
her "bun" (vermicelli)
menu "salads." They
combine cold cucumber slices with
diced lettuce, cool vermicelli,
fresh bean sprouts, mint, cilantro,
different kinds of basil and scratch-made
lemon sauce. We are partial to
the grilled pork version, but
they come with shrimp, meatballs,
grilled beef and egg rolls.
We tried her angry catfish last
week and found it a great bargain.
She used a gentle chili marinade
before wok frying a whole fish
to a contrast of textures - chewy
outside, soft and juicy inside
- with perfect cheeks. She serves
that, for just $6.95, smothered
in caramelized onions and dried
chilies, again gentle ones, and
surrounded by ornately carved
carrots and daikon that has been
pickled in a brine far sweeter
than those used in Korean or Japanese
treatments - hot and sweet and
sour and salty.
One experimental appetizer worth
keeping gave an egg wash and deep-frying
treatment to a yolkless boiled
egg stuffed with potsticker mix.
We know what you're thinking.
We didn't think so either, but
it surprised us enough to order
more. Nga's appetizer menu also
offered shredded pigskin egg rolls,
in which the pork skins are rendered
soft as noodles, in rice wrappers.
Another spring roll was stuffed
with whole shrimp, for less than
$1.50 a piece.
Nga devised a new summer treat,
tentatively called "friendship
dessert," that mixes several
kinds of Jell-O with tapioca pearls,
two kinds of coconut and coconut
milk. When you stir the rainbow
concoction, you have a kaleidoscope
in a glass bowl.
Thai, Lao and Chinese dishes are
also available. CV
1541 6th Ave.
Open Mon. - Sat. 10 - 9, Sun.
Café Di Scala opens
Friday in the old Chat Noir location
at 644 18th St. Owner-chef Tony
Lemmo remodeled the Victorian
café with some serious lighting
upgrades and spectacular woodwork,
particularly the inlaid olive
bar by local sculptor Gabe Lueders.
Lemmo has Italian restaurant blood
on both sides of his family. His
mom is a Lacona. His paternal
grandparents owned the short-lived,
much loved Lemmo's.
The Leopold Center for Sustainable
Agriculture and Drake's Agricultural
Law Center brought Todd Murphy
to town recently. Murphy developed
Farmers' Diner, a restaurant buying
most of its food directly from
local farmers and small-scale
food producers. His original diner
in Vermont drew praise from The
New York Times, Gourmet and National
Public Radio. Murphy's press release
said he started with $240,000
in capital, and reached the break-even
point within one year. But in
Iowa, he was pitching investors
on a seven-year plan for profitability.
He has a franchise model that
clusters four to five Farmers'
Diners around a central commissary,
for processing. Locals described
his business plan as "naìve"
Corn sweetener consumption is
growing as fast as obesity. In
1967, Americans ate an average
of 114 pounds of sugar and sweeteners
a year, almost all of it as raw
or refined sugar. Today average
sugar consumption has risen to
142 pounds annually, with nearly
half of it coming from high-fructose
"Darwin was wrong when he
talked about the survival of the
fittest: it's really the survival
of the healthy enough to get by.
As it says in the Good Book, the
last shall sometimes be first,
the meek shall inherit the earth
and the chubby will get extra
biscuits at the breakfast buffet."
David Brooks, commenting on
a Centers for Disease Control
& Prevention report that found
overweight people live longer
than those of normal body weight.
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