Phong Dinh

Originally uploaded by illewminator.
Not for vegans, picky eaters or the faint of heart, Phong Dinh is kind of like adventure eating ala that Kitchen Confidential dude on the Food Network. As I discovered on my first outing to this Vietnamese restaurant in Rosemead, I am no Anthony Bourdain.

As the sign on the restaurant proclaims, it's all about the "baked fish" here. However, I didn't quite expect it to be a giant catfish on a platter, blackened and arranged as if it were swimming for its life. Now, I'm no wimp when it comes to eating whole steamed fish, so my issue with this place wasn't the presentation of the fish.

In fact, the fish was quite tasty, as long as you don't dig too deeply into it and strike black gold (i.e. the bitter, blackish stuff that you hit when you get to close to the fish's stomach). The chosen method of eating the fish is carefully separating one (or, in my case, two; every time I tried to pick off just one it would rip and I'd have to ball it up and start all over) of those thinner than paper, rubbery rice paper "tortillas", filling it up with a chunk of fish, along w/ some vermicelli, lettuce, shredded/pickled lettuce and radish, and sprigs of various herbs, then rolling the whole thing up like a little burrito.

No, my problem was with the fish sauce, which I was only able to single out as the offending ingredient toward the end of our meal. Since I had tasted fish sauce before and had no problem with it ever before *and* because we had also ordered a salad that was billed as having shrimp and "lotus stems," I thought something in this dish was causing the highly unpleasant taste in my mouth.

The only thing I could figure is that this fish sauce was the *real thing* where other Vietnamese restaurants I've been to use a watered down, sweeter version designed to please the American palate. Anyway, this stuff was rank and I felt like I was going to gag as soon as it hit my mouth. My dining companions didn't seem to have as strong a reaction to it, though, so you should try it and see for yourself.

As for the rest of the Greenpeace-offending menu goes, be forewarned that this place is also known for featuring exotic game meats. Some of these options include: frog, snake, deer, fox, alligator, and kangaroo. Our waiter encouraged us to come back to try some of these specialties. I've tried kangaroo and alligator before and would probably try the other meats, too, if I had different condiments that didn't involve that nasty fish sauce.

The place was pretty packed with Vietnamese families, all of whom had a gigantic baked catfish among many other dishes whose cousins were probably featured in National Geographic. My guess is that it's pretty authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Maybe too much so for me.

Phong Dinh is on San Gabriel Blvd north of Garvey.


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