Memphis via Vietnam

Tai Hoa B.B.Q.
854 University Ave. W., St. Paul; (651) 298-8480
Hours: 9:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. daily

 

"Did you have a good reunion weekend? Joe, here's another esophagus," said my friend, turning briefly to her husband to deposit something she didn't want onto his plate, and thus coining my favorite couplet of dialog for the year.

Geoffrey P. Kroll

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Tai Hoa

854 University Ave. W.
St. Paul, MN 55104

Category: Restaurant > Barbecue

Region: Macalester/Groveland

Truly, I don't even think it was an esophagus. It was gelatinous, crunchy, and sliced thin, and if you ask the English-light staff about it, you learn: "It's good!" Invariably, it is good. Really, really good. Never have I been so happy to sup upon so many unidentifiable snips and scraps of critter, for Tai Hoa, a Vietnamese barbecue place which opened this past winter, is truly a priceless gem on the local scene, albeit one that isn't for the faint of heart.

Or even for the sorta-strong of heart. Some of the things I tried that I quickly fell in love with were pig intestines stuffed lengthwise with whole green onions and grilled. They end up tasting smoky, subtle, and like a chewy meat-gelatin. And then there was the daikon and carrot salad made with fiery bits of red chili, poached shrimp, and splayed sections of translucent chicken feet. But I really knew I had crossed over some personal threshold when I found myself one day looking close up at the butt end of a whole dangling carcass and musing, "I bet that curly roast pig tail is the best part."

As far as I know, Tai Hoa is fairly unique around here--basically a great southern barbecue joint, but Vietnamese. It's got the requisite setup: a meat counter with some steam trays; a formidable lineup of meat; some salads; a no-nonsense bulletin board listing prices; and even a handful of tables covered with red-check plastic table cloths. Well, then again, the soda in the cooler is grass-jelly juice, sweet condensed coffee, and young roast coconut beverage. But you get the idea.

If you just go in and sit down at one of these check-cloth tables, someone will bring you a menu, but this is not the best way to proceed. The best way is to go up to the glass-front counter and start asking questions about what's hanging in the window rack, simmering in the steam trays, and chilling in the refrigerator cases. Sure, if you don't speak Vietnamese you'll be getting some incomplete answers, but unless you consider mystery to be an acceptable dining companion, this isn't the place for you anyway. Then, just start pointing and ordering. You can get a single item and rice for $4.50; two with rice for $5.50; three for $6; or four for $6.50. When you're done pointing they'll scoop whomever out of a pan or off a hook, throw them down on a raised, round, pedestal of a cutting board and start thwacking with a cleaver. I always got four items, invariably enough food for another whole take-out meal.

And I always got the roast pork: It's nothing short of irresistible. A whole pig is cleaned, salted, and roasted until the skin is russet-potato brown and cracks when you bite it--in fact, it cracks into shards of rich, salty, absolutely addictive pleasure, and the sweet fat and dense meat beneath are simply facets on the diamond. Ask for a little container of the sweet ginger sauce they usually serve the pork with, then upend it into a little foam dish, and blend to taste with some of the chili-sauce in little jars on the table: It adds a sweet and savory dimension to the pork that must be experienced by any barbecue lover. (Roast pork, or "heo quay", is also available for takeout at $5.50 a pound, or from $160 for a whole pig.)

But why stop there? Raise the stakes. If you add to your plate the always-available soy-sauce chicken (snowy and mild) or soy-sauce duck (rich and dense), you'll usually also get a chopped-cilantro-ginger sauce. And if you're there when the restaurant is serving their orange squid, called "múc phá láu", call it your lucky day. These tender, unfishy, resilient slices of squid are delicious, and come with a sort of sweet, pickled, green-chile sauce that the restaurant should patent and start bottling immediately. It's great on the squid, draping a sweet and zingy cloak on the mild mollusk, but adds immeasurably to that pork, too. I also couldn't help noticing how much it has in common with American barbecue flavors: the chili, the pickle, the sweet.

I can't really make heads or tails of what I'm going to tell you next, because it's patently bizarre, but somehow seems true to me: Tai Hoa reminds me overwhelmingly of some roadside joint in Texas or Tennessee, and it is as nothing for me to imagine tourists lined up outside clutching newspapers and listening to tinny Hank Williams on a speaker. Really. I can only attribute this feeling to the settling in of some kind of universal barbecue spirit. The place even has a framed poster of dogs playing poker. What else could you possibly look at while scooping up barbecued pork with both hands?

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