I doubt I'm the only American who thinks primarily of Scandinavian and Eastern European cuisines when they taste dill: Whether it's in Polish cucumber salad mizeria, showered atop borscht or mixed into practically every Swedish dish, the herb carries a very European connotation. But Thiên Thanh, a small family restaurant just across the street from Chinatown's Hong Kong City Mall, proved my palate wrong.
I recently asked Houstonia contributor Mai Pham to take me to a restaurant where I would be the only non-Vietnamese person. I had eaten plenty of Vietnamese food up north, but am still very much in the early stages of my Houstonian education. My experience with the cuisine has been mostly in the realm of "greatest hit" dishes. Mai, as she put it, was kind enough to show me the "deep cuts."
Visiting Thien Thanh was my first time at a bánh cuốn specialist, and the rice rolls are indeed fantastic little bites of grill-marked meat stuffed into slick, noodle-like wrappers and topped with fried onions, blanched sprouts and cilantro. I would happily eat another plate as I write, whether the filling is chopped pork and wood ear mushroom, grill-marked chunks slices of marinated pork or dried, minced shrimp.
But Mai also had the foresight to order chả cá thăng long, despite our fatherly server's protestations that it was too much food for two ladies. In English, the menu calls the dish "grilled fish with dill." That does nothing to prepare diners not already in the know for the gustatory fireworks to come. The dense, meaty flesh of the fish itself is marinated in turmeric, garlic and galangal, and served on a sizzling plate that leaves the meat caramelized and crisped. Beneath it, a thick carpet of dill fronds and onions cooks away, too, absorbing a bit of the turmeric flavor.
Mai showed me to fill a bowl with the slippery noodles, just a hair thicker than vermicelli, before adding in my choice or fresh herbs (mint and Vietnamese coriander, in my case), funky fermented shrimp paste sauce and crumbles of banh da, a black-sesame-studded rice cracker. The make-your-own aspect is lots of fun in itself, but I wasn't prepared for the wallop of flavor, more than the sum of its already piquant parts.
Bánh cuốn, in their sweet bath of fish sauce, are pure comfort. Bowl after bowl of excellent chả cá thăng long is an experience not to be missed.