Creative collaboration is what Columbus does best. Case in point: Beyond Pho, a dining experience conceptualized and executed by pop-up-restaurant organizers Here to Disrupt, Vietnamese restaurant Tốt Vietnamnoms, and the digital Columbus-based publication, Wonderfilled Magazine.
As the founder of Wonderfilled (full disclosure), I’m constantly seeking out opportunities to connect with different cultures in our small bastion of Midwestern sensibilities. Throughout the years, Columbus has grown in its offerings of ethnic food, thanks in part to our diverse refugee populations, giving us no shortage of Somali, Ghanaian and Nepalese food to name a few. But as an Ohio native, with a penchant for true immersion, I sought experiences that not only satisfied the palate, but also my insatiable curiosity about the world beyond.
Enter Here to Disrupt, the brainchild of Mattey Spicer and Travis Sims that, since 2015, has been facilitating one-time-only pop-up dining experiences with burgeoning chefs in need of a kitchen. We joined forces with Khanh Le, owner of Tốt Vietnamnoms, one of Columbus’ newest chefs whose approach to food is equal parts traditional, inventive and adaptive.
Le’s culinary training by way of observation and experimentation comes by him rightly as the son of Lan Pam, owner of North Market’s Lan Viet Market. When he opened Tốt Vietnamnoms in 2016, his goal was to bring his inventive culinary philosophies to the traditional Vietnamese dishes he grew up with.
“Every good cook needs to draw from past experiences,” Le said. “Mine is growing up with my mom’s cooking and my dad’s garden. My childhood has allowed me to recreate traditional Vietnamese food into what I serve at my restaurant.”
From pork belly banh mi to vegetarian pho, his restaurant’s daily offerings reflect a merging of culture and flavor—but for this event, his one-night-only menu would celebrate the flavors of northern Vietnam, an important distinction for an incredibly regionalized country.
As a rule, northern Vietnamese cuisine uses less sugar and fewer chiles than its southern counterpart, leaving room for subtlety in favor of light, balanced flavors. It made sense, then, to begin with cháo, or congee, an unassuming rice pudding that’s traditionally served for breakfast. But Le’s take, topped with salty, pan-fried SPAM, crispy garlic and a runny poached egg with a drizzle of herbed oil, elevated the simple dish into a tribute to the amalgamation of sweet, salty, crunchy and spicy that typifies Vietnamese dishes.
In quick succession, gỏi, a fresh, crunchy salad with shredded boiled chicken, cabbage, Vietnamese coriander, dressed with fish sauce, thai chiles, garlic and lime, followed by gỏi cuốn, or summer rolls. Assembled by our guests, the light, fresh summer rolls brought together the country’s staple ingredients: rice, rice noodles, herbs, and fish sauce. Wet, sticky rice paper was filled with basil, mint, parsley and other cooling herbs piled high on plates around the table. Close by, ready to be added, bowls of noodles and platters of poached trout and seasoned shrimp. Noticeably missing? Peanut sauce, a condiment that, according to Le doesn’t have a place on the traditional vietnamese table. Instead, the rolls were dipped in a homemade fish sauce based sauce.
Fish sauce, Vietnam’s most famous condiment reflects the country’s rich heritage of seafood as a staple ingredient in most traditional dishes. This was brought the life in the fourth course, bún riêu cua, or crab soup. Traditionally the recipe calls for small rice-field crabs called cua đồng, collected, pounded and pressed through a sieve to make the base of the soup.
Le, however, favors lump crab and jumbo shrimp in his North Market Apron Gala award winning interpretation, which he mixes with egg whites to create light, airy seafood meatballs for the tomato based broth. Served alongside fresh Vietnamese balm leaf, purple perilla and fresh vegetables with which the guests were encouraged to garnish their soup.
The final course, bún chả Hanoi, found its 15 minutes of fame when Anthony Bourdain took Obama to a small Hanoian cafe during the former president’s tour of southeast Asia. Seasoned pork patties, submerged in a lemongrass fish sauce broth, served with skewers of grilled pork belly, the smokiness of the meat paired beautifully with the sweetness of the broth and the heat of the raw chiles. And, as with the earlier dishes of the night, piles of fresh herbs were on hand to lavishly heap into the bowl.
As the evening wound down with cups of sweetened fermented rice, topped with homemade yogurt, I couldn’t help but reflect on the beauty of the dinner table as it provides a welcomed space for cultural sharing and understanding, allowing for experimentation and inspiration. For Le, his recipes have an air of self reflection: a Vietnamese-American, born in Ohio, surrounded by a cultivated tradition of food; a measured demonstration of cultural identity in an ever-shifting world.
Before the evening began, we had decided to create long, communal tables without place cards or a seating charts. As the meal progressed into the evening accompanied by gentle din of conversation between friends and strangers, I realized that, perhaps, this is a critical component to the human experience: finding connection and commonality while breaking bread. And it certainly helps if it involves deliciously inventive food. •