We flew Jetblue back from New York City on Sunday and when we stepped out onto the tarmack at San Jose airport (you have to do that at San Jose’s terminal C), it was 10pm, humid and hot. The pilot had announced that it was about 75F. I’m always thinking about my next meal and said to Rory, “It feels like a nice evening in Southeast Asia. Let’s grill something tomorrow with lots of garlic and fish sauce.”
Though I went to New York to teach cooking class and for business meetings, we had plenty of time to eat out with friends. The Shanghai soup dumplings were delightful, and so was the Greek food at Snack Taverna, Tuscan fare at Bar Pitti, old-fashioned Italian at Felidia, high-end homey Japanese at Aburiya Kinosuke, Belgian fries at Resto, ramen at Momofuku Noodle Bar, and modern American at Craft Bar and Gramercy Tavern. We even left Manhattan for exceptional food at Cucharamama in Hoboken and a spritely lunch at Marlow and Sons in Brooklyn. (If you’re wondering, we walked a lot and the fifth-floor walk up that we rented enabled us to fend off any weight gain.) But at the end of the week, I hankered for home cooked food. In fact, whenever I return from a trip, I look forward to cooking my own food.
With our current California heat wave, I decided to grill pork steaks – pork shoulder steaks to be exact as they’re much more flavorful and fattier than the typical thin, dry loin chop used for Vietnamese grilled pork. Someone recently requested that I post a recipe for the grilled pork that Vietnamese restaurants often prepare and serve with rice plates and the like. I have a running list of recipe requests but moved that one up to the top of my priority list. Maybe it’s because I was trying to bridge eating out for a week with cooking at home? Or was the weather dictating my cooking? Probably a bit of each so I set to the kitchen yesterday afternoon.
Replicating Vietnamese Restaurant Food
Restaurant food is not the same as home cooking. Restaurant food is generally a lot sweeter and saltier than homemade food. The reason? The bolder flavors get customers to drink and eat more; it’s a Pavlovian thing. People also love to indulge in big flavors when they go out, so it’s a push and pull dynamic with restaurant dining.
With regard to Vietnamese restaurant cooking, there’s usually a smidgen of MSG added to food for good measure. I don’t use MSG (real or fake MSG), but I decided to go heavy on the seasonings in this pork marinade. Also, as mentioned above, I used succulent pork shoulder instead of dryish pork chop – which most Vietnamese restaurants use to my dismay. And, I grilled the pork over an open flame for nice charring and flavor. Lost of Vietnamese restaurants broil and the flavor is rather flat. Soy sauce adds color here, and if you use dark (black/thick) soy sauce (called hac xi dau in Vietnamese), the meat will take on a mahogany cast.
As I sliced the juicy fragrant pork, we had to sample a few pieces to ensure doneness. Rory looked at me and said, “No matter where we eat, the best food is at home.”
Vietnamese Restaurant-Style Grilled Lemongrass Pork
Thit Heo Nuong Xa
You can use this marinade with small pieces of pork and thread them on skewers and dip them in some nuoc cham dipping sauce. If there’s no lemongrass, use about 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder instead. Slicing the pork at the end is a traditional Vietnamese approach to eating meat as the pieces are easier to pick up with chopsticks. Enjoy with rice, a stir-fried or grilled vegetable and a quick soup (canh). Feel free to stuff leftovers into banh mi sandwiches and use them for bun rice noodle salad bowls.
1 pound boneless pork shoulder steak, about 1/2 inch thick
11/2 to 2 tablespoons granulated or light brown sugar
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped shallot or yellow onion
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed and finely chopped (3 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon dark (black) soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon oil
1. Cut the pork shoulder steak into pieces about 3 to 4 inches big. Set aside.
2. Put the sugar, garlic, shallot and lemongrass into an electric mini chopper and process to a fine texture. (Or, mince the garlic, shallot, and lemongrass individually, put them into a bowl, and add the sugar.) Add the pepper, soy sauce, fish sauce, and oil and process to combine well. Aim for a relatively smooth texture. The marinade will be chocolate brown. Transfer to a bowl.
3. Add the pork, and turn to coat well. Cover and set aside at room temperature to marinate for 1 hour. Or, refrigerate up to 24 hours, letting the meat sit out at room temperature for 45 minutes to remove some of the chill before grilling.
4. Preheat a grill to medium-high. Grill for 6 to 8 minutes, turning frequently, until cooked through. Nick with a knife to test. Transfer to a plate, loosely cover with foil or an inverted bowl for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.