We recently learned that Brooklyn Park is home to a large and still-growing Vietnamese population and that some of these immigrants were opening eateries less focused on satisfying bland American palates than on giving fellow immigrants a true taste of home. How could we not want to explore that rumor?
After doing some research, we chose three places to visit. All were in strip malls; all had friendly service, if not always in the best of English; all had tables loaded with serve-yourself condiments that included spicy sauces, fish sauce, and hoisin; all seemed surprised and then gratified that these not-Vietnamese diners were willing to look at parts of the menu that didn’t involve sweet-and-sour anything. Because pho and banh mi are ubiquitous around the Twin Cities, we opted to avoid those dishes and see what each eatery recommended as its specialty.
Our first stop was Phuong Trang, which sported a bright pink interior with large food photos adorning the walls. Phuong Trang has a 22-page menu that starts, discouragingly, with the aforementioned sweet-and-sour options but becomes increasingly authentic as the pages go by. By the last couple of pages, no English descriptions are provided, which seems to indicate that the menu creators didn’t think only-English-speaking people would be interested in these dishes. But we’d heard good things about a dish called Bo Tai Chanh ($20), and when we pointed to it in the non-English section, our server was very excited. Her English was limited, but she made sure we understood it was raw beef. We then asked what else she would recommend, and she immediately pointed to Chao Ech Singapore ($15), which did have the benefit of having an English description: “Rice soup with fog meat.” After a bit more discussion, we learned that the soup came with frog meat. (A little disappointing — fog meat sounded so intriguing and mysterious.)
Knowing we were covering three places in one afternoon, we felt we should pace ourselves accordingly (not unlike those taking part in the East Lake excursions), but when the Bo Tai Chanh was set before us, our cautious approach nearly went out the window. A platter arrived, heaped with raw beef marinated in lime juice (much like a ceviche), served on a bed of herbs and mild, lightly pickled onions, and topped with fried shallots. The beef was insanely tender and flavorful, with a strong lime finish, and wasn’t eclipsed by the onions and shallots.
One bite led to another, and another, and another, until the Chao Ech Singapore arrived to distract us. This came in two separate dishes, a gentle rice soup and a spicy broth with fried frog legs. The broth came loaded with raw jalapeños and sizable chunks of chilies, but combining the broth with the mild rice soup softened the overall effect. The frog legs were chewy, as frog legs can be, but were carefully cooked so as not to become overly tough. They had a good meaty flavor that held its own against the spicy broth.