"Like eating custard in a sewer," is how one wise-guy connoisseur describes the sensation of tucking into a durian. But whirled in a blender with a little condensed milk and sugar, poured into a tall glass, and crowned with whipped cream and a cherry, this exotic Southeast-Asian fruit looks as guileless as a milk shake. Obviously, its innocent appearance could hardly explain the cloud that passed over our server's face when I ordered one at the end of a recent meal at Chinatown's #1 Pho.
"We have strawberry," she counter-offered. "We have jackfruit."
But I wouldn't be deterred. Its fans have dubbed the big, tough-shelled durian "the king of the fruit," in homage to the luscious, creamy flesh concealed within its thorny hide, and no overprotective server was going to keep me from it. I had, however, been forewarned about durian's one little teeny flaw: It stinks. Big time.
Garlic . . . dirty feet . . . lighter fluid . . . Limburger cheese. These are some of the more polite analogies people have offered for durian's bouquet. When the server finally brought my shake, the first whiff registered even before the glass reached my lips. Wet coal . . . burning tires . . . road kill baking in the hot sun? Yet when I was able to get past the smell, the unexpected flavor -- sweet, delicate, and with a texture akin to heavy cream -- made me eager to have at it again.
But as neurology dictates, what the tongue desires, the nose may very well refuse. And whether a culinary explorer goes on to dig or despise durian ultimately depends on which of those senses gains the upper hand at the moment of first impact. So it was that "pass the durian" turned into an amusing little after-dinner game, bringing the evening to a close with a fanfare of giggles, groans, and gasps.
While I might have been a durian virgin up to that point, I was certainly no stranger to this good-looking Vietnamese restaurant. Like a golden yolk buried in the center of a moon cake, the tastefully decorated #1 Pho is a bright spot in the sometimes-gritty neighborhood around East 31st and Superior. A mere five-minute drive from the heart of downtown, and with plenty of free on-street parking, the urbane eatery has become a popular lunch spot for local blue- and white-collar types, who head here for big bowls of traditional noodle soup -- pho -- served with basil, lime, hoisin sauce, and other aromatic go-withs. In fact, I've been slipping in for anonymous midday slurps since autumn. (To read more about pho, see the Café review "Working Class," in the November 6 Scene.)
But the kitchen is about more than just soup, and we were hungry to check out the other possibilities -- authentic Vietnamese dishes like nem nuong (grilled pork meatballs served with roll-it-yourself rice-paper wrappers); banh xeo (a French-influenced crêpe filled with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts); and ga xao cari (chicken in a mild curry sauce) among them.
Co-owner Thang Nguyen says plans are afoot to reduce the size of the large, well-organized menu, in order to let the kitchen concentrate on perfecting a smaller repertoire of popular dishes. At the time of our visits, though, the thick bill of fare included 17 appetizers, 14 non-soup noodle and rice dishes, and a long list of exotic beverages ranging from sinh to sau rieng (the blended durian smoothie) to ca phe sua da (high-octane espresso tamed with sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice). There were plenty of options for vegetarians, and after 5 p.m., a host of beef, seafood, pork, and chicken entrées were added. The small wine list was a pedestrian collection of inexpensive chards, cabs, and sauvignon blancs from California, France, Italy, and Australia, as well as a Japanese plum wine. We would have liked to find a juicy riesling or two among the offerings, given the varietal's well-known ability to complement spicy Asian fare, but no such luck. Happily, the imported-beer list was more interesting, with its roundup of tasty Indian, Chinese, and Japanese brews, as well as lightweight Vietnamese lagers like Hue and 33 Export.
Unlike many other Asian restaurants, #1 Pho doesn't dish up gigantic portions: Even our waistline watcher managed to polish off her entire entrée without loosening her Levis. But with most starters pegged at less than $7 and most main dishes priced at less than $12, dinner isn't likely to stretch a budget either; throw in a bottomless pot of green jasmine tea ($1.25), and you may even manage to get change back from a $20 bill.
In return, diners can generally count on finding food that is fragrant, well seasoned, and artfully arranged on gleaming white dishes. Many plates arrive garnished with slender crinkle-cuts of pickled vegetables -- carrots, cucumbers, daikon -- while others have been showered with chopped peanuts and herbs or accented with lettuces and a tangle of rice vermicelli. Non-noodle-based entrées come with a pearly mound of steamed rice. And nuanced portions of nuoc mam (a sweetish translucent sauce made from fermented anchovies) or nuoc cham (nuoc mam fired up with the addition of vinegar, lime juice, and chiles) accompany almost everything.
When the kitchen is in the groove, each dish is a well-balanced symphony of clear, clean flavors and contrasting textures and colors. A cool appetizer "salad" of shredded chicken and cabbage was a memorable case in point. Moist but crunchy-crisp . . . delicate yet assertive . . . sweet but sharp, salty, and relentlessly fragrant: The dish was an object lesson in skillful Vietnamese cuisine. Mild chicken curry also had the chops. Here, tender bits of well-trimmed chicken breast and pieces of crisp onion and green pepper were paired with a thin, brick-red, lemongrass- and cayenne-spiked curry sauce just spicy enough to arouse the taste buds, but unintimidating enough that all the flavors came hustling through.
Golden, bite-size fritters of baked squid, dusted with a vaguely spicy salt and tossed with smoky grilled veggies, hit the mark: crunchy outside, buttery at the heart, and naturally sweet and creamy. Grilled pork meatballs, which we enfolded in translucent, pre-moistened (and therefore too-sticky) rice-paper wrappers and dipped in nuoc cham, were delightfully savory. And slender spring rolls filled with finely ground pork, onions, and mushrooms were dainty and greaseless, with fragile shells that shattered beneath our teeth.
All this goodness, in fact, made it hard to understand how a bland, grease-laden crêpe, or a bowl of lifeless rice vermicelli topped with sugary barbecued pork, emerged from the same kitchen. But along with a meatless dish of flaccid pea pods, mini-corn, and broccoli florets served over limp "crispy egg noodles," these dishes made up a disappointing lunch visit and had us wishing we'd stuck with the reliable pho.
Such rough spots may well be addressed when the kitchen debuts its new streamlined menu. And regardless of what comes before, there's nothing like a cup of sweet, dense, iced espresso to put a diner back on his or her feet at meal's end. We're also developing a jones for the potent Thai iced tea laced with half-and-half, and the Rainbow Ice (che 3 mau), a pretty, parfait-like layering of sweetened mung and red beans, green gelatin cubes, and shaved ice drenched in coconut milk, served with both a spoon and a straw.
And then, of course, there's the blended durian, with its delightful flavor and indescribably repulsive odor. If you must know, I never finished mine. But I'm going back soon to try again.