Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
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For a pair of Vietnamese restaurateurs, the challenge isn’t how to serve authentic food, but how to serve authentic food that sells.
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SEVERAL NEWSPAPERS LAST OCTOBER, including The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, reported this year’s discovery of Halloween by the French. “It’s a festival of the dead, I think,” one young Frenchwoman was quoted as saying. She called it “AH-lo-een.” There was some national difficulty pronouncing “treek au tr-r-reet” but, according to what I read, the French people did purchase plenty of pumpkins. Somehow, the American holiday was semi-suc-cessfully translated into their language.

Cultural translation is a particularly modem challenge. It’s never been easy, and we’re having to make more frequent sense of it than we used to when the world seemed larger. Because food is cultural glue {more literally in some national cuisines than others), it’s only natural that as the world gets-not smaller, exactly, but cozier-we’re becoming more interested in what’s in our neighbor’s pot. Sometimes, though, the food just doesn’t translate. How well can you really understand a dish featuring soft tendons and fatty brisket? Most of us in Dallas don’t eat that language.

That childlike, biological brake against ingesting the unfamiliar (and therefore possibly unsafe) kicks in when you’re served soup that looks like it was dipped from a tank at Dallas World Aquarium. (What are those leaves and strings and gray lumps floating around in there? Is that the cultural glue?) On the other hand, you don’t want to lose the meaning in the translation. “Would you be so good as to kindly give me a match?” is how Italians read Ernest Hemingway’s dialogue until finally a new translation captured accurately the abrupt prose of “Give me a match.” Ideally, ethnic restaurants cook food that bridges incomprehensible authenticity and comfortable illusion. Who wants to drive all over town for nothing more exotic than chicker noodle soup?

Dallas is a compartmentalized city, We prefer things to be orderly and organized and in their place. Old money in Highland Park, Chinese in Richardson, Vietnamese in Arlington, and gays in Cedar Springs. Cultural polyglot Michael Tieu moved to Dallas from San Francisco-where cultures are more commingled-to work with his family in Saigon Savour, their Vietnamese restaurant in Far North Dallas. His goal was to make it both authentic and approachable. A translation challenge if there ever was one.

A challenge that some think is impossible. “You can only sit in one chair,” Mai Pham says firmly. Mai has been Dallas’ primary Vietnamese cuisine evangelist since she opened the city’s first Vietnamese restaurant in 1980. Now she owns Mai’s Oriental in Snider Plaza in University Park. Could there be a more thoroughly non-Asian neighborhood? And she says, “There are two markets here: Vietnamese and American. You can’t mix them. You have to dilute the food for non-Asians.” In the recipes for her restaurant, she always halves the amount of nuac mam, the fermented fish sauce that is the single most characteristic ingredient in Vietnamese food.

Tieu’s view is wider. He was bom in Saigon and grew up in California. When his sister moved to Texas with her spouse, the rest of the tight family (father, sister, and two brothers) followed, but Tieu stayed, working in a semi-global San Francisco restaurant that served French-Vietnamese cuisine. His family had a similar idea-they opened Saigon Savour, and to attract a cross-cultural clientele, subtitled it Euro-Asian Cuisine. But when Tieu moved here in 1996 to work in the restaurant, he found that “global” translated differently in Texas than it did in California. Here it seems to be code for “watered down.”

That’s why he immediately changed the family restaurant’s name to Saigon Bistro. He wanted to emphasize the food of Saigon, a specific and actual cultural crossroads, and lose the vague “Euro-Asian” label which really only indicated that there was coq au vin on the menu. And he called it a “bistro,” translating into American English via French the atmosphere a diner should expect from what he envisioned as a restaurant appealing to Vietnamese and Texans equally.

1 know that old saying, ’If you want good Chinese food, go where the Chinese are eating,’” says Tieu. “So when I took a look around my family’s restaurant, the first thing 1 said was, ’Where are all the Vietnamese?”’

Now, Tieu is trying to translate a mom-and-pop cafe into a modern business. He came up with amission statement, and he’s thinking about things like the effect of Monday night football on the demand for beef in lalot leaves. When it was suggested that TVs in the bar might attract customers on slow Monday nights. Tieu insisted, “We’re not a spoils bar. We need to do what we know and do best. What do we want them to come here for? It’s for a culture that doesn’t include football.”

Next to family, food defines home. One way you can tell you’re home is by the smell of what’s on the stove, and one of the first marks of a community is a cafe serving familiar food. Some restaurants are designed for the Vietnamese community. Saigon Savour had been designed for the non-Asian community. When I ate there last year, the only Vietnamese were waiting on me. But Tieu is a believer in the global village and takes a more inclusive approach to ethnic dining.

But this is not one of those new-age melting pot American kitchens that puts everything from lemon grass to beets on one plate, even [hough the dining room’s decor-with its minimalist chairs and contemporary colors-could be one of those restaurants. Tieu has a passion for authenticity. He brought in Los Angeles chef Kathy Truong, a third-generation Vietnamese cook, to revamp the kitchen. The two share a belief that dishes must be prepared correctly, with no substitute ingredients. When Tieu specifies exactly what diameter the Hawaiian lalot leaves must be for his Festive Beef, “It’s not because I’m being picky. The leaf has to be a certain size for wrapping the beef, and it has to be a certain maturity to reach full flavor.”

Of course, there he met another challenge in the re-creation of a culture: finding the raw ingredients. “In California, you don’t have to plan ahead. You can go to market every day and gel what you need. Here, the suppliers are buying it just for you so it’s hard to plan a menu around availability.” Tieu has had to teach mainstream markets what he needs. Vietnamese vendors know what size lalot leaves need to be. American suppliers need to be told.

It was similarly difficult for Mai Pham to find essential ingredients like lemon grass when she first opened Mai’s. She’d never heard of the boutique farmers Alice Waters encouraged to grow specialty produce for Chez Panisse in Berkeley, a system that became the basis of New American regional cuisine. But Mai began convincing people around Dallas to grow what she needed to prepare authentic Vietnamese food. “Twenty years ago, I bought three lemon grass stems with roots for S20 apiece.” she remembers. “But I don’t have a green thumb. I killed them. So I asked a friend with a greener thumb to try growing it so I could buy from her. I’d go to the Farmers Market, and if they didn’t have what I wanted, I would say, ’Can you grow it?’ and now they do.”

Authenticity is only part of the goal. If cuisine is too authentic, or as Tieu would carefully phrase it, “presented loo authentically.” its authenticity creates a barrier. It says, “We’re not geared for you.” On the other hand, some restaurants are so diluted by Western culture that they lose sight of what they’re supposed to be. Tieu feels that these places don’t have enough respect for the diner. “You have to assume some sophistication in a market like Dallas. Keep it authentic, but package it in a more friendly way.” By “packaging” he means presentation. The best example he can give of how Saigon Bistro translates traditional Vietnamese food into the modern American idiom is Festive Beef, a seven-course, special occasion dinner in Vietnam. The feast includes beef strips cooked in boiling vinegar and onions, beef salad, beef and nee soup, the beef wrapped in lalot leaves, grilled beef rolled around pickled onions, beef slew, and beef meatballs, along with rice pancakes, noodles, fresh cilantro, mint, basil, lettuce, and bean sprouts. When it’s presented, it looks more like a mise en place-something you’re about to cook-than a finished dish you’re about to eat. There’s a lot left to do at the table and the most motivated Dallas diner may not have a clue where to begin.

“It’s just aproblem with the way it’s presented.” says Tieu, “You put all the dishes out on the table, everything is in its little bowl, and you have to know how to eat it. You have to know which sauce goes with which beef, which garnish complements which dish.”

At Saigon Bistro, the kitchen presents Festive Beef so it needs no instructions. Sesame crackers stick out of the beef balls to clue the diner who might otherwise dip them in the peanut sauce or roll them up in a pancake.

Mai aimed for cross-cultural appeal in her Vietnamese country cooking restaurant on Bryan Street. Now she serves middle-class food-obviously more suitable for Park Cities clientele. Over the years, the menu at Mai’s Oriental, which started out as a Chinese cafe with just a few Vietnamese dishes, has slowly reversed its proportions. Mai has coaxed her clientele along, introducing them to unfamiliar foods gradually and tinkering with the recipes until she made them just familiar enough to be appealing.

In Hot Chic, for instance, one of the most popular dishes on her menu, she uses only half the hot pepper called for in her original recipe. Spice is by far the most familiar barrier diners face. Vietnamese customers also like textures that most Western palates find repulsive. When Mai prepares Hot Chic for Vietnamese friends, she makes it with dark meat, hacked across the bone, with the cartilage and bone left in. In Snider Plaza, she uses-what else- boneless chicken breast.

Tieu says he learned from living in California how to move from culture to culture and how to mesh cultures together to attract a wide clientele, Vietnamese and American. “You need to treat an ethnic menu like a wine list,” says Tieu. “You have to have the expected things like spring rolls and noodles just like you have to have Kendall-Jackson, but you also have to have things for the more adventurous diner.” Saigon Bistro’s menu is a blend, a reflection of Tieu’s belief in the global village and his idea that the best translations don’t just bridge language literally to language-Vietnamese to English-but more subtly provide a way for the unfamiliar to become familiar.

SAIGON BISTRO, 17390 Preston Rd.,Ste. 490, 972-380-2766. $-$$.

MAI’S ORIENTAL, 6912 Snider Plaza, 214-361-8220.$-$$.