Strange vegetation is fascinating. But as fun as giving unfamiliar fruits and veggies a taste test can be, it's also gotten me into some jams.
Like when I was 7, and there was a hole in the fence of my school playground leading to some undeveloped property covered with berry bushes. I talked a little friend into exploring with me one morning recess. We were drawn to the tiny, red berries like pilgrims to a shrine.
We sat in front of a bush, munching handfuls of berries for about an hour before we were caught. Two teachers rushed us to the nurse who made frantic phone calls to poison control, our parents and probably the CDC. Come to find out, the berries were chokecherries—only the wilted leaves of the bushes were toxic, in large quantities, to horses.
Twenty-three years later, I'm drawn to a strange, spongy bit of vegetation that pops up in various Vietnamese soups. It's called a different name every time, from “taro stems” to “elephant ears.” The delicious soup I ordered at Viet Taste (sweet and sour soup with mixed vegetables and catfish, $10) was chock-full of the very same pale green, crisp vegetable that can best be described as edible slices of loofah. The mystery continued as I scooped mouthfuls of savory broth, pineapple, bean sprouts, sliced tomato and grilled catfish. The tomatoes were underripe but a ton of fresh basil infused the soup with a soft, sweet fragrance. The fish didn't suffer from the muddy flavor that catfish can acquire. Instead, the light earthiness of the fish complemented the sweet fruit and sour, tamarind-infused broth.
My entrée, rice with spicy lemongrass tofu and broccoli ($6), would tempt the most ardent of carnivores. The marinated tofu was tender and free from the too-common shackle of a hard, oily crust. Red chili peppers and lemongrass flavored everything so well that even the broccoli was saved from being boring.
The look of Viet Taste is typical strip mall on the outside. The inside, however, is distinctive with two back walls made up to look like grass-topped huts. The other walls are a pretty chartreuse color and decorated with rocks and bamboo at intervals. For all the lovely décor, it's still tight quarters. The dozen-or-so tables are just too close together for comfort.
Despite my new intimacy with strangers’ elbows, the meal I had was pleasant, with above-average service and prices that were reasonable. The most expensive appetizers on the menu are only $5, and nothing on the entrée menu tops $10. I’m a cheap mofo, so I’ll be doing dinner here again.
The mystery vegetable kept me wondering all the way home, where I spent some time searching different cooking and gardening websites to no avail. I grabbed my leftover container and gulped a few more spoonfuls of cold soup, frustrated. In a moment of annoyance I typed “weird spongy vegetable” into a search engine. Voila! The mystery vegetable popped up, picture and all, from the blog of a fellow foodie who had also been confounded by it. (The veggie is called bac ha and is the edible stalk of a plant in the same family as the taro.) It ain’t always easy being a foodie. But it’s worth it when you find the right soup.
The Alibi Recommends:
Spicy lemongrass tofu and broccoli
Sweet and sour soup with catfish
Rumor has it ... the fried banana with ice cream is delish
Viet Taste Restaurant, 5721 Menaul NE, 881-0101. Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. every day. Price range: inexpensive. No booze, credit cards accepted.