By Gene Gonzalez
There is a food park right beside Ace Water Spa in Pasig that caught my attention as I was sauntering around the area after eating somewhere in Pioneer Lifestyle center. My favorite macha place, which I had been patronizing for some time now with their outstanding desserts and simple savory items, delivered great desserts as always, but was a letdown on my savory orders. Not contented with my evening repast, I decided to roam around and seek possible options to curb my disappointment.
So I entered this food park, where I found this Vietnamese stall called So Mot that had a small air-conditioned area with a display of Viet coffees that intriguingly seemed authentic. What reinforced my decision to try this place out was the Vietnamese proprietress who greeted us on the way in. Looking at the pictures on their menu, I decided to order an iced coffee and iced tea, expecting the typical beverage served in Ho Chih Minh and Hanoi. I also ordered their beef salad (Nom Bo). And because I am a sucker for Viet noodle salad, I had decided to order what tickled my senses intensely, which was the Noodle salad with grilled chopped fish (Bun Cha Ca). The basic fish sauce dressing for both salads, which is called nuon mam cham, was very correct and balanced, and gave the right push to the flavors of what would’ve otherwise been just ordinary blanched beef and cut up vegetables.
The fresh mint on the beef salad gave a refreshing twist, with just a topping of their mixed chives and cilantro—which I wanted a little more of. With the same dressing for the noodle salad, the difference in texture and flavor was the addition of rice noodles, the light toastiness of fried sliced spring rolls, and the silky, firm texture of a fishcake with herbs, which the Vietnamese love to embellish their cold dishes and sandwiches with in the form of pork or seafood. The only downside were the iced coffee and iced tea which, though authentically Vietnamese in origin, seemed to conform to the price levels or budgets of food park goers, rendering them too light to be the typical iced drinks that immediately rush into your palate to show off the robust flavors of Vietnamese coffee or tea. But since the food was deliciously authentic, I had thought of making a second visit to this place.
On my second visit, I had decided to try out the Pho, which was not available during my first try because it was already quite late. Though I would have preferred it to be boiling hot, the broth of this beef noodle dish was wonderfully aromatic, reminiscent of sweet wood spices with the rather top note of black cardamom or thao qua that gave a sweetish smoky character to the broth. It was a Monday and probably the herbs topped on the Pho were fresh and abundant with chopped chives-cilantro mix, whole sprigs of fresh mint and cilantro. At R160 for a small bowl and R220 for a large one, this was a real winner. The accompanying condiments of thick hot sauce and the authentic bean dip, I also ordered the minced pork and a noodle salad called Bun Cha Thit, which turned out to be little meatballs.
Though I was expecting one of those minced meat loaves that Vietnamese love, such as their chopped minced meat version, the combination of meatballs with fried spring rolls was well executed, and one can’t complain of the price. The Banh Cuon or fresh spring rolls had the authentic tan-colored bean sauce with whole fermented soya beans that gave beany-floral notes in the umami filled sauce.
Overall, it was a filling and inexpensive treat. I would come back one day and have that noodle salad with chopped fish cake, which is my top dish for this place.
This article was first published in Manila Bulletin Lifestyle.