East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

TGEL: 126 chili peppers, 5-6 days sodium... forget it, it's Oakland Chinatown

I wanted to celebrate the season by making vegetarian summer rolls, and decided to get all the ingredients from the centre of the the East Bay's Vietnamese community, which happens to be Oakland Chinatown. But first, I stopped at Cam Huong (920 Webster St) for a sandwich. Quite a lot of banh mi lovers prefer this place to the canonical Saigon Sandwiches. After one sandwich here, I'm inclined to agree with them, but need to go back to make sure. Lots of choices: I had the beef, the taste of which shone through the heavy seasoning. There's a crisp, sour mix of vegetables, and the peppers have some kick. To nitpick, the bread is only decent, and it's a little saucy, but otherwise it's near-perfect in its proportions. As good a light lunch as you can get for $2.50.

Then it was off to the markets. There are maybe a dozen Chinese/Vietnamese grocery stores there are on 8th and 9th Street; no idea how they all stay in business, but apparently some of them have been open for decades. I ended up purchasing from four of them:

Sam Yick (362 8th St): most gweilo friendly; pornographic calendar (dated 2007, impressively) in plain sight
Maui gold pineapple (screw authenticity): $1.99
Jicama: 59c/lb
Total: $2.99

Cholon Moi (378 8th St): pan-Asian range of sauces and packaged goods; girl at the counter answered my funnily accented fish sauce questions
Three Crabs fish sauce (Thai): $2.95
Green onions: 35c
Total: $3.34

Wah Hang (415 9th St): great selection of what-is-that? exotic vegetables; cheap meat counter I wasn't brave enough to try
Some greens I think were bitter melon leaves: 69c

Khanh Phong (429 9th St): the best of all worlds except service; sauces, produce, meat, even (goodness) fresh fish and prawns
Three Lobster fish sauce (from Phu Quoc, Vietnam, supposedly the place for fish sauce): $1.59
Spring roll wraps: 89c
Small rice papers: 59c
3 packets of those Kasugai roasted hot green peas Shankenstein likes (not for rolls): $1.29 ea
Total: $6.94

Before I returned home I decided to have a late afternoon meal at SPiCES! 3 (369 12st St), the latest outpost of the cloyingly typeset, small-but-growing chain. I counted: the "fish fillet with Explosive chili pepper" came with exactly 126 chili peppers. To put this in perspective, the last time I was in a chili-eating contest, it was stopped when the two remaining contestants hit 50, at which point organisers feared for their safety. (I had dropped out after five.) Was this dish Explosive? It certainly tasted so, but to make sure, I tried exactly one chili pepper. Yep. Up until then, I had enjoyed that the dish didn't just rely on spiciness: that you could also taste salt, pepper, even a little sesame. Afterwards, all I could taste was the chili, no matter how much of the horoscope-appropriate fruit drink (Aries: honeydew and coconut) I consumed. I left the other 125 chili peppers in the boat in which they were served.

After several hours of tastebud recovery, I started to make the rolls. Cutting the pineapple with my kitchenware was a challenge, but one at which I succeeded -- thanks, howtocutapineapple.com! I blind-tested the two fish sauces. The Three Crabs only had the fainted hint of fish -- it just tasted like salt (a tablespoon of either sauce contains half my sodium RDI; together with the Explosive chili fish, I'd guess I went through 5-6 days of salt today). The Three Lobsters had a lot more fish taste, but was overpowered by the presence of MSG. I slightly preferred the Three Crabs but was hardly satisfied. I ended up using a mix of three parts Three Crabs to one part Three Lobsters. Then I just ate the spring rolls undipped. Then I just ate the constituent ingredients. Then I just ate the green onions. They were quite good.

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  • At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    um...would the bittern melon leaves happen to be mustard greens, which are also bitter?

  • At 12:48 AM, Blogger bradluen said…

    Not sure, but I don't think so. If they are, they're unlike any mustard greens I've had before. Several well-separated leaves on each stem.


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