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.
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?
In addition to the roast pork, there's always sweet red roast pork, roast duck, the aforementioned soy-sauce duck and soy-sauce chicken, and a couple of Vietnamese salads on hand. I tried a salad once that I thought was vegetarian, but it had a few hidden chicken feet sliced up in it. If the thought of inadvertently eating chicken feet gives you pause, skip your veggies. (Actually, if you told me meaterrific Tai Hoa made their carrots from specially formed pork, I wouldn't be at all surprised.) Otherwise, the menu changes constantly. One time I got delicious thumb-sized sweet and salty fresh rice-paper rolls filled with dried shrimp, strips of sugary omelet, big leaves of licorice basil, and a salami that tasted like a cross between prosciutto and Spam--wonderful. Twice I tried a tasty sort of meat loaf made with liver, bean-thread noodles, and mushrooms, topped with an egg-yolk custard-like layer. It tastes like some kind of mild halfway point between pâté and quiche. Nice.
I did find a couple of things I didn't love: A sort of stew made of pork and bright orange shell-on shrimp looked great, but tasted fishy and metallic. Another stew of what I think were pork intestines and kidneys was merely sort of salty and chewy.
Did I mind? Not a whit. After four visits I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of what this kitchen is capable of--the take-out menu boasts things I never once saw but can't wait to, like salted pork ribs and roast quail. I'm calling this my new favorite local treasure. Is this the future of Twin Cities barbecue? I can only hope so. And who knows, the day may come when I even get up the guts to try that pig's tail.
$2.5 MILLION DOLLAR TROUT: Ever had Wisconsin Star Prairie Trout Farm rainbow trout? The fish is locally renowned for its firm, delicate flavor, a taste I almost want to describe as windy: fresh, subtle, moving quickly across the tongue, like something you sense on the air. Local chefs turn cartwheels over the stuff, and owners Mac and Mary Graham host an annual invite-only Memorial Day Trout Fest to let them. At the last one a bunch of chefs participated in what can only be described as a grill-off: Ken Goff from the Dakota did his grilled trout with soft fruit and spring greens; Jim Kyndberg from Bayport Cookery dusted his with morel powder and served it over savory corncakes; David Robinson from Muffuletta topped his grilled trout with roasted-garlic bread-sauce; and Lenny Russo paired his with golden potato salad.
Think you can do better? Well, put up or shut up. Head to one of the local stores that sells Star Prairie's smoked trout (Seward Co-op has the best selection, but North Country Co-Op has it sometimes, too, as does the Woodbury Kowalski's); one that sells fresh trout, like the aforementioned places plus the Wedge Co-Op, most of the Byerly's, the Edina and Highland Park Lunds; or even one of the places that has them live in tanks, such as the Sun Ray and Burnsville Byerly's. (Fear not--when you buy a live fish someone else will gut and fillet it for you.)
Better yet, motor on over to the farm itself and catch your own. Star Prairie provides grills, coals, poles, bait, ice, picnic tables, soaring white pines, rushing streams, nine shallow trout ponds, and, of course, the trout, for $3.99 a pound (or $6 a pound from the trophy pond, where the fish weigh seven to nine pounds each). For 50 cents, you can have your just-caught fish cleaned and gutted. For $1, you can have it filleted. All you have to bring is the roast garlic bread sauce. Or not. According to Mary Graham, a lot of Asian picnic groups have been coming out and cutting the fish into the freshest sushi in town, and washing it down with rice vodka, which tends to kill off any of the parasites that native-born Americans live in fear of.
Of course, there's a lot to fear at Star Prairie, and none of it's in the fish. Actually, for greater health and safety, my advice is to skip this paragraph and sit home with a bag over your head. Oops, now you've done it. Now you'll go and have grilled trout in this legendarily idyllic setting, and your whole life will be turned topsy-turvy as you become gripped with the need to secure $2.5 million dollars in order to buy Star Prairie from the Grahams, who are selling off now that the kids have left home. Mary Graham is none too hopeful for the future of the place as a trout farm. "It is kind of labor-intensive and not that highly profitable. We're hoping that whoever takes it on will want to do the trout thing, but who knows, the land is probably more valuable than the trout at this point. We should probably call it Rushing River Estates or something." Where will your 2.5 come from? Wireless porn? Kidnapping Michael Jackson? The irresistible combination of wrestling, strippers, and football? Oh wait, skip that one. Star Prairie is about a half-hour east of Stillwater; Star Prairie Trout Farm; 400 Hill Ave., Star Prairie, Wisconsin; 715-248-3633 or 888-545-6808; www.starprairietrout.com.
NO, I DIDN'T QUIT: Sharp-eyed column-counters among you might have noticed I haven't taken a week off since I took up this column in 1997, and honey, I need a break. I'll pick up the column again August 1. Till then, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with tips or questions.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.