Saigon Block's River Monster
I've eaten a lot of Vietnamese food in my life, and I thought I had tasted, or at least seen, everything; I was way off. I would have continued living blissfully ignorant, but I was tipped off to a Vietnamese restaurant in Richardson that was known for serving a particular dish unknown to me. Removed from the epicenter of Vietnamese restaurants in Richardson, Saigon Block is dropped in a strip mall where you would expect to see a sandwich shop.
The dish is called Ca Nuong Da Gion, a whole catfish baked and topped with crushed peanuts, fried shallots and fresh scallions. Probably a dish of more modest proportions in Vietnam, I saw catfish larger than small children being shuttled around the restaurant to seemingly every table.
All of my reservations about authenticity were quashed once I stepped into the contemporary dining room; this place was packed with Vietnamese all toting their own booze (it's BYOB). After ordering the catfish, the accoutrements were quickly brought out: rice paper, a large bowl of hot water, a plate with lettuce, herbs, cucumbers, bean sprouts, pickled daikon and carrots, vermicelli noodles and a deep bowl of mam nem (fermented anchovy sauce).
The catfish was presented on a platter like a trophy, the waiter set it down making sure all of the diners at the table could get a good look. It was a large unrecognizable carcass, a little shorter than my arm, splayed open, mouth agape, with a mean looking mug. The waiter pulled out two spoons and started cutting up the back of the fish, swiftly removing the entire spine in one long piece.
So it goes like this: Navigate the crowded table, soften a piece of rice paper in the bowl of hot water, and flop it on your plate. Throw a little bit of all the cold stuff in there, and then pluck out a nice large chunk of fish. Hopefully you haven't overloaded the rice paper because this will make rolling nearly impossible. Tuck in the sides of the paper then roll over the top away from you keeping all of the contents in a tight little package; you should have a nice sized spring roll if you did it right. Now plunge the whole thing in the mam nem, and keep spooning it on after every bite. It's a little bit of work, and you definitely have to get your hands dirty, but it's worth it.
The first thing you taste is the mam nem. The pungent, spicy sauce overpowers the spring roll at first, but as you chew away, the meaty, tender fish and the cool, crunchy vegetables are liberated from the rice paper. One bite spins you into an array of flavors and textures all cloaked in a sauce that hits taste buds you never even knew you had.
So bring a case of beer, a few friends, roll up your sleeves, and get to work, you won't be sorry.