So You Want To Be A Waiter

The best book on waiting tables that you have never read – yet

Tag Archives: Vietnamese

You know you’re a foodie when…

…you’re watching Tony Bourdain in Vienna and you say, “He’s drinking out of a Spiegelau wine glass! It’s an “Authentis” Burgundy glass! Why is he drinking white wine out of it? And hey, I’ve even got one of those glasses”!

That’s when you say to yourself, “Have I’ve gone too far? Am I a lost boy”?

That’s on top of me going to a new Vietnamese restaurant this afternoon and being disappointed with the  Bánh mì sandwich and the vermicelli dish that you find in most Viet restaurants (you know the one – it’s got cut up pieces of spring roll, cilantro, grated carrots, “BBQ pork”, ground peanuts and a side bowl of sweetened fish sauce. First of all, the Bánh mì barely had any crunchy bits like cucumber and carrots, and had some very stalky cilantro stuck in the middle. The pork was the requisite reddish color but had hardly any flavor. Plus, it wasn’t even cut in the middle. Sad. Then, the vermicelli dish had some sad bits of cilantro and a sprinkling of carrots and almost indiscernable cucumber, the fish sauce tasted more vinegary than sweet, and the spring rolls were basically Chinese spring rolls (I don’t know what makes them different, but the Vietnamese spring rolls you usually find in the dish are far more succulent and tasty). But the final insult was the fact that the vermicelli was overcooked and comprised most of the bowl instead of having a good ratio of noodles to “good bits”. Oh wait, I forgot – I had to send back the lemonade because it was a commercial mix  instead of that really good “homemade lemonade” that you find in a good US Vietnamese restaurant. Hell, it even said “homemade lemonade” on the menu. I told my waiter that it tasted like Countrytime and she told me that it was actually Minutemaid.

I turned into one of those passive-aggressive diners that we waiters all hate, only I dropped the “aggressive”. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the very nice, accommodating waiter that it wasn’t her fault but her restaurant’s cuisine sucked eggs. I was hard enough for me to send the flipping lemonade back ($2.75 – are you kidding me??!!??)

I feel badly because I won’t be going back, especially since there are three good Vietnamese restaurants within 3 blocks of there. I feel especially bad because I didn’t have the heart to tell my waiter. I’m a baaaaddd diner.  But even worse, I feel weird that I had such emotions over a $10 lunch. I guess that makes me a foodie of sorts – a foodie on a budget.

God, somebody please help me…

And speaking of ketchup

viet world kitchen

Andrea Nguyen has borrowed a spicy, Asian-styled ketchup recipe and shared it with us.

September 03, 2009

Spicy Umami Ketchup Recipe

I’ve been on a condiment jag lately, if you haven’t noticed. With Labor Day weekend coming up, I’ve been dreaming of the summer’s last official barbecue – hamburgers. I love hamburgers and when we were kids, my mom would sometimes fry up burgers in a cast iron skillet and we’d gobble them up on Sunday mornings after church. To me, homemade burgers were nearly as good as homemade beef pho noodle soup. It’s no coincidence that both are ‘have it your way’ kinds of foods.

Like Vietnamese pho and banh mi sandwiches, I like to personalize my hamburgers, dressing it with carefully layered accoutrements before taking my first bite. On the bottom half of the bun, lots of rich mayonnaise touching both sides of the sliced tomato. On the top half of the bun, the tomato ketchup should flavor the meat, onion and cheese with its tangy, salty, heady edge. Ketchup punctuates a hamburger with brightness.

I’ve tackled homemade mayonnaise, Vietnamese chile garlic sauce, and Thai-style Sriracha sauce but I didn’t think of making ketchup myself until I noticed Saveur magazine’s umami ketchup recipe in the September 2009 issue.  The fanciful ketchup recipe comes from the popular Umami Burger restaurant in Los Angeles. What made it umami? For one, ripe tomatoes are extremely umami laden, and the restaurant includes oyster sauce, tamari, Worcestershire sauce, and anchovies for extra savory depth.  The use of salty, briny ingredients in the recipe reminded me of traditional Vietnamese tomato sauces employed to nap fried whole fish, tofu and the like. In fact, in Rick Stein’s travel show on Vietnam, he makes that kind of sauce, seasoning it with fish sauce for savoriness. Stein uses fish sauce just like a Vietnamese cook would. Ketchup’s East-West connection got me to thinking and researching.

Read the rest of the post here:

Umami ketchup

Image courtesy of and Andrea Nguyen

Andrea Nguyen’s Sriracha taste-off

I’m fond of the bastardized version of the original Thai chili sauce that’s found in Asian restaurants everywhere (the ubiquitous squirt bottle is actually a Vietnamese interpretation that’s actually made here in the States, as she points out). You know the bottle – it’s the one with the rooster on the bottle. I like using it in tandem with sambal, that rough-textured hotter, oily sauce that you often find on the table. The sambal has a more direct, hotter flavor and “Sriracha” is a bit more laid back. Unlike her, I do like adding it to my pho, although I’m discrete with both chile sauces. I don’t like overwhelming the delicious broth, but I like tailoring it to my own tastes.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing what chile sauces I can find at my local market and I hope I can find the “Shark” brand that she discusses.

Another great, informative post from Ms. Nguyen. She really does have one of the best foodie sites on the web and I’m looking forward to her dumplings book.


Photo courtesy of Andrea Nguyen,

Andrea Nguyen on Vietnamese herbs and celebration of 200th post

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I love not only Vietnamese cuisine, but also Andrea Nguyen’s wonderful blog, Viet World Kitchen . You’ll find the link in my blogroll and if you plug her name into my search engine, you’ll find both reviews of her book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and her comprehensive and sweeping blog. If you type in pho, you will find my rather overheated defense of phở , done in the early days of this blog and reprinted from a music mailing list that I was participating in, back before I realized that I could cut and paste the word  phởfrom Nguyen’s blog to get the Vietnamese character. Maybe some day I’ll go and clean it up, but it was itself a cut and paste job from a mailing list post. Perhaps in the spirit of authenticity, I should leave it alone, resisting the urge to tighten up the overheated rhetoric as well.

If you love the heaping fresh herbs that accompany such dishes as phở and bánh xèo (sizzling crepes). Nguyen has an article that you’ll want to check out:

It links to her July 15th article in the Los AngelesTimes food section about an appreciation for Vietnamese herbs. And the post also has a link to an article about growing Vietnamese herbs. Since finding a variety of fresh Vietnamese herbs is a challenge at best and impossible at worst, this is an article worth checking out. Herbs are fairly easy to grow, even if you only have a balcony and she gives you the rundown on easy ways to grow them in and around the home. she also has a link to a “Vietnamese herb primer”, where she goes down the list of important herbs.

If her blog isn’t on your subscribed list, it should be. And if you don’t have her book, what in the heck are you waiting for? She’s got a new book on dumplings coming out in next month as well.

vietnamese Photo courtesy of The Coriander Leaf, the Singapore “Asian Food Hub”

Oh yeah, this is post number 200!

Cookbook of the day – Splendid Soups


Splendid Soups: Recipes and Master Techniques for Making the World’s Best Soups

by James Peterson

Publisher: Wiley (September 22, 2000)
ISBN-10: 0471391360
ISBN-13: 978-0471391364
Once again, I don’t have the most current edition of this book. I have the 1994 edition, which clocks in at 100 less pages than this new edition. Mine has a different cover as well:



I’m assuming that Peterson has added some modern variants of classic soups, as he has presumably done with the updated edition of his Sauces book that I reviewed yesterday. This could be considered a companion edition to Sauces, but even this earlier edition has a wider scope than Sauces, with non-Western ingredients such as bonito flakes, Udon noodles, miso, and various soups from the Far East and other places included in this edition. You’ll find soups from India, Japan, Morocco, Thailand and other far-flung corners of the globe.

This is another of Peterson’s “reference” works. As such, you won’t find a single photograph. It’s all recipes, tips and techniques. Some recipes are for intermediate or advanced cooks, but even the beginning cook can find a lot of practical advice on soup-making that will help them move past the basic into the more advanced levels of cooking.

If you have Peterson’s Sauces, this should sit next to it on your bookshelf.

Food ingredient of the day – galangal


What in the hell is galangal?

Don’t worry – it’s not as weird as you think, but if you like Thai food and wonder why your homemade Pad Thai never tastes exactly like the Pad Thai at your favorite restaurant, this could very well be the reason. You’re probably using regular ginger for your dish. While that’s acceptable, you might want to see if you can get ahold of galangal, which is “Thai ginger”. It looks a lot like ginger, but it’s quite pink.

On the left is young galangal and on the right is old galangal (the kind you’re likely to find in the store if you can even find it).


It’s a species of the genus Alpinia, which includes the more common types of ginger. However, it’s got quite a different taste than ginger. It’s milder, without that very sharp “hot” flavor of ginger. It’s got a more citrusey overtone and it’s a little sweeter. The Thai name for it is Kha. The famous Tom Kha Gai literally means “Soup with galangal and chicken”. If you see Kha in a Thai recipe title, it means that you’re supposed to use galangal. Of course, you can always substitute ginger; it just won’t be as authentic tasting.


It’s not easy to find in many communities. You can even get dried Kha, but it’s not as effective. You should try to get the root whenever possible. The unused root can be frozen and used for a year (it will lose a little of its flavor over time, even when frozen).

You might find yourself using galangal in place of ginger in other recipes as well.

Galangal is your friend. Invite it over for a cooking session. You won’t regret it.

Wine topic of the day – German wine regions – The Mosel pt. 3

German wine has a bad rap among some of the wine-drinking public. “Too sweet”, they moan. “I don’t like dessert wines”, others declare.

In a lot of ways, Germany only has itself to blame. Thanks to the popular brands like Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch, German wines were known as  cheap sweet white wines popular with unsophisticated young people and lovers of white zinfandel. Because of the high yield of Riesling and Müller-Thurgau, they were able to put those two brands in every cheap liquor store’s reach-in cooler.

But in the 80s, they started to turn this around. And the Mosel region was typical of this German resurrection. Even though they weren’t guilty of the above two wines, they recognized that the easy large yields of Riesling-based wines, coupled with the use of ller-Thurgau and Elbing, diluted the great character that could be achieved in the region. As the wine-drinking public became more sophisticated and discerning in the 80s, this allowed the Mosel wine community to be able to justify pulling up Müller-Thurgau vines and replant with Riesling,while simultaneously thinning the existing vines to cut down the huge yields, all with the aim of increasing quality. Having several of the most recognizable vineyards in history help Mosel hit its stride with the increasingly sophisticated wine public.

Vintners also started to produce Trocken (dry) styles as well as reducing the sweetness and trying to preserve the natural acidity that Riesling exhibits. They were also given a big shot in the arm by the incredible three years of ’88, 89, and 90.

Today’sMosels have become far more consistent in their quality, although there are still some that pander to the old style of big, sweet and flabby. You don’t have to buy a Trocken style to get something that works well with food. If the acidity is there and the sweetness backed-off a hair, you can enjoy a Mosel with many dishes. It especially works well with shellfish. It also works well with cheese selections, creamy soups, glazed foods like ham or carrots, Asian foods with spiciness like Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, and certain Chinese dishes.

Mexican food works somewhat well if you decide that you want to drink wine instead of beer or tequila, and salads but i find that the food is generally a little too heavy for Riesling to work well.

Obviously most fish dishes work well, although I prefer to pair it with lighter, flakier white fish like grouper, halibut and sea bass, leaving such darker, steakier fish as tuna and salmon to pinot noir and chardonnay. This is just a personal preference though – Riesling works just fine with those fish. Fruit sauces and fruits incorporated in dishes work well, especially when you pair a Riesling with a certain fruit flavor like apple or peach with its corresponding fruit. I tend to avoid using anything less than a Beerenauslese with desserts. Some people like using Auslese with desserts, I’m just not one of those, unless I’m having berries. I just think that there are better choices.

Avoid heavy meat dishes with rich veal stock-based sauces, but feel free to pair with grilled meats.

I actually like to drink Mosels by themselves. If they have sufficient acidity, they can be very refreshing, especially in the spring and fall.

In the next installment, we’ll list some specific wines to look for.

I hope that these short essays give you the push to dig deeper into the world of wine. Obviously, they are only thumbnail sketches. And, don’t forget, if you’re just getting into waiting tables, or you’ve been in the business for years, your income can depend on how well you can describe and sell the wines that are available to you.


Picture from the very good wine blog, Rambin’ Wino’s Wine Guide. You can find a well-worded entry from March 29th about pairing Riesling and Asian food here:

Article in Slate about cookbooks by Sarah Dickerson

I don’t know how long Slate keeps their articles up before throwing them in the archives, but anyone who actually reads my little cookbook blurbs should read this article while it’s still up.

“Some cookbook authors are decidedly domestic, writing about common ingredients with an eye to easing weeknight pressures of the kitchen. Others are professional: They attempt to translate commercial restaurant artistry to the lay masses. Then there are those writers who aim to bring another culture to life through recipes and observations. These authors are the cooking world’s equivalent of Alan Lomax, who ventured to the farmsteads and hollers of rural America, microphone in hand, collecting a nation’s folksongs before interstates and television blurred our regional cultures into a homogenous mass. Whether writing about a childhood home, an ancestral haunt, or a land discovered in full-grown adulthood, these ethno-culinarians try to convey, along with recipes, a sense of how history and geography affect the shifting habits of what we eat every day. They interview grandmothers and street cart vendors to understand the technique and gestalt of vernacular food (and to give the readers a wood-fired whiff of authenticity—a knotty but essential concept). They provide guidance in buying unfamiliar ingredients, be it Greek  mastic or Vietnamese culantro”.

Paula Wolfert is specifically mentioned (remember my praise of her in one of last week’s Cookbook of the Day segments)?

Najmieh Batmanglij is also mentioned. I discussed her book, Good Foods of Persia last week as well. Her book, which I don’t have, The New Food Of Life, is highlighted by Ms. Dickerson.

And praises are heaped on my favorite Vietnamese author/blogster Andrea Nguyen. The very book that I mentioned in the first weeks of this blog is reviewed:

“With Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, Nguyen, who immigrated to the United States as a child, unearths Vietnamese traditions and describes how they changed in the immigrant community here among the supermarkets and food processors of the States. She spends ample time demystifying the Viet pantry with practical advice—”Premium fish sauce is reddish brown and clear. Avoid dark inky liquids that are overly salty and flat tasting”—but not without true sentimental moments:

‘One of my most vivid memories is of our cook, Old Sister Thien, squatting and fanning the small charcoal brazier on which she grilled corn on the cob. As the corn cooked to a charred chewy sweetness, she brushed on a scallion oil made with home-rendered lard. The aroma and taste were heavenly’.

So, three out of the six authors (and one of the books) mentioned by Ms. Dickerson on Slate were also spotlighted on my own humble blog. Not bad for a blog that’s only been doing this for a month, even though she chose a different Thai author than I did. But, no worries, I still have another 4 Thai books to review in the future and I’m intrigued about the one that she mentioned, Cracking the Coconut. Great title.

Just a reminder, you can find my reviews of the three authors that I mentioned here:

You can see all of my Cookbook of the Day posts by inserting that phrase into the search engine. However, I didn’t do a full review of the Nguyen book as it was done before I started this series. It was really as much a touting of her website as it was a recommendation of her wonderful book, the link of which website you’ll find in my blogroll. I really should go back and make it a true Cookbook of the Day report.

And speaking of Pho…

For those folks interested in Vietnamese food, you should definitely own this:

Into The Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors by Andrea Nguyen

Into The Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors by Andrea Nguyen

This is simply the best book on the subject.

And you should check out her great companion blog,

If only certain longhaired Vampirish hat-wearing Top chef contestants from previous seasons who claimed to be experts in Vietnamese cooking had devoured this book and blog – they might have become Top Ch…well, maybe not – porkpie hats only get you so far – look at Elvis Costello.

An appreciation for Pho

This photo courtesy of

This photo courtesy of

Someone was dissing the classic Vietnamese noodle dish Pho on a mailing list and I was compelled to come to its defense. Fueling the fire was the fact that Tony Bourdain was waxing eloquent about it as he is wont to do and so, here’s my response to someone’s observation that he found Pho “boring”.

I wasn’t going to comment on this because, well, different strokes for different folks, I suppose. But I was finishing the “Food Porn” episode of No Reservations that I mentioned in the thread about Pulling Mussels (From a Shell). I had only watched the first couple of segments and lo and behold, in one of the last segments, Bourdain was again talking about his passion for Pho. He claims that while there might be dishes as good in the great European kitchens, there’s nothing better. And I’d have to agree with him. The oddly constructed meatballs throw you off? I can see that. Tripe trip you out, and not in a good way? Sure, I sympathize. Tendon gives you suicidal tendencies? It is something you’ve got to get used to, but it can be left out if one isn’t inclined. But boring? Hardly. Maybe if you don’t know what to do with that plate of Thai basil, perilla, cilantro, sprouts and lime. Maybe if you don’t use that incredible nectar that is fish sauce. Maybe if you are afraid of the Sriracha and sambal on the table and you fish out the large bias-cut jalapeños or fresh chili pepper of choice that you inevitably find swimming around, lurking under the brisket. Maybe the natural Western tendency to avoid slurping, which is actually essential to the enjoyment of the dish is
an impediment to enjoying the dish. To me, it’s almost the ultimate comfort food. Every bite, slurp and spoonful is different, especially if you customize the Pho as you go. I never just dump everything in.
The tearing of the leaves is a continual process so that there is always some fresh leaf left for the last bit. A little squirt of Sriracha here, a demitasse spoon of sambal there, a squirt of the lime and a dash of the fish sauce, some fresh sprouts and a little float of the basil, and I have a taste that is unique to that little quadrant of the soup. Confronting the fresh bias-cut pepper at the right point is always important to me as well. You can’t hit it too soon or too late or it overwhelms the rest of the meal. To me, it’s almost like I’m an extension of the chef – I’m continuing to “cook” the dish. It requires constant attention and to me, this automatically means that it can’t be boring. And everyone has a different way of attacking and enjoying it. Some might very well go for the pepper first in order to get an explosion of heat right off the back. Others might be more circumspect in their seasoning and eschew the hot condiments entirely and fish out the jalapeño immediately or ask for it to be left out. It’s an ultimate customizable dish.

The last thing I love about it as a comfort food is that it’s filling but not filling. It’s the zen of food in a way.