Photo by Anne Fishbein
The famous baked fish at Phong Dinh is a monster of an animal, a thick-skinned Vietnamese catfish barely shy of a yard, blackened and smoking, the twin prongs of its signature mustachio charred into crumbling Salvador Dali curls. You have undoubtedly encountered a catfish or two in your time, but this is another thing altogether, a juice-dripping beast that looks as if it could have engulfed a loaf of French bread as easily as a boa constrictor swallows a wild pig. The creatures from Phong Dinh’s ovens are not particularly carnivorous — not with those tiny teeth — much less prime specimens of Pangasianodon gigas, the giant, endangered Laotian catfish that some people consider to be the most delicious species ever to be pulled out of a tropical river, but they are formidable just the same, baked fishes you would not want to meet up with in a dark tributary of the Mekong.
Phong Dinh is located just where you might speed up on the way to a little catch-and-release at the lakes in Whittier Narrows, probably untempted by the restaurant’s screaming neon promise of “World Famous Baked Fish.” (My idea of baked fish was formed decades ago at 54th Street School in South Los Angeles, whose lunches featured tan bricks of protein so odiferous that Fridays tended to announce their presence even before we piled off the school bus.) The specialties of some other Vietnamese restaurants in Phong Dinh’s general area — skewered meatballs, Hue-style pig’s-trotter soup, and the Vietnamese tacos called banh xao, among others — can seem slightly more compelling than baked fish, especially the kind of fish that occasionally weeps a yellowish goop from its body cavity. My guess is, you could probably move enough salmon to depopulate the North Sea before you could find a single taker for the baked fish on a country club buffet. And yet, when the fish lands on your table, mouth agape like Aaron Brown deprived of a Teleprompter, it is a sweet-smelling thing, still sizzling, lolling on a platterful of mixed greens as if it had just happened to belly-flop onto a passing salad. Dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant tends to involve the kind of intricate assembly more commonly associated with NAFTA semiconductor plants, a set of small motor skills that includes peeling moist rice paper from a stack, plucking the leaves from half a dozen sprigs of herb, prying nuggets of meat from a carcass and folding everything into a hermetically sealed packet sturdy enough to survive a dunk into tamarind sauce. And the fish couldn’t be better, crisp-skinned and steaming with a pleasing feral muddiness that five generations of scientific aquaculture have completely eliminated from the American catfish. Two reasonably hungry people can generally plow through a baked fish the size of an orca, and still have room for dessert.
If you have heard of Phong Dinh at all, it is probably because of its sizable game menu, which features characteristic preparations of every animal that has ever skittered through a Vietnamese swamp, and a few beasties — kangaroo, alligator, ostrich — that probably never made it farther than the royal zoo at Hue.
If you have ever been interested in eating sawdusty particles of sea snake that have been minced with lemongrass and water chestnuts and served as a dip for oily, deep-fried rice crackers, this restaurant is for you.
If you would like to try blandly grilled wild-goat ribs, or tough little snails steamed with ginger, or codhead hot pot (by request only), or the classic Vietnamese sauté called luc lac made with cubes of alligator instead of beef, Phong Dinh is definitely for you. The roasted quails can be rather delicious, actually, dripping and rubbed with sweet spices, and I am partial to the slices of marinated venison that you char yourself at the table in about half a stick of butter sluiced onto a sputtering grill.
But don’t get your heart set on the roasted fox. Each time I’ve been into Phong Dinh, I’ve asked for the fox, and each time a waiter has insisted that the next shipment of fox is right around the corner. Fox meat is undoubtedly pretty hard to get into the country, even from Vietnam. PETA would not be amused. And if the reaction of an acquaintance is anything to go by, perhaps I’ve been lucky.
“I was brought up in Scotland,” she said. “I’m a gamekeeper’s daughter. Believe me, I’ve tasted just about everything that walks, and they do eat a lot of fox over there.”
“Do you remember anything about the taste?” I asked.
“Let’s put it this way,” she said. “Fox is not a meat that I crave.”
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So the next time I came in, I had rabbit prepared in the manner of fox, which is to say spiced, roasted and served with potatoes. The dish actually sounded a bit like an Aesop’s fable: “The Chef Who Substituted a Rabbit for a Fox.” You could think of it as fast food, if that term can be redefined as food that can outrun you. And really — it tasted better than the snails.
Phong Dinh, 2643 N. San Gabriel Blvd., Rosemead; (626) 307-8868. Lunch and dinner 10:30 a.m.–11 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $15.95–$35 (more with exotic meats). AE, D, MC, V.