Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Was a Red Stool Pigeon at a Vietnamese Street Food Pop-up

I've been intrigued for a while with the elegantly named "Rice Paper Scissors" collective (well, duo) but never caught up with them until last night. What's grabbed me about the team of Valerie Luu (@littleknock on Twitter) and Katie Kwan (@kitchensidecar) is their obsession with Vietnamese street food, and especially with their desire to keep it real, and not run it through the Hipstamatic. Valerie and Katie run what may be described as a guerilla" popup because its location varies (now that's a popup). You have to follow their "corporate" Twitter account (@ricepapersf), not the individuals, to find out the location the day of the event, as I discovered way late.

Last night's event was at (and in front of) an industrial space on 20th Street near Shotwell in the Mission. Service began at 6:30 and I was there at 6:30 sharp. Being a Senior Citizen, I go for the Early Bird Specials; "special" in this case means no long lines or long waits. My early arrival also enabled me to snag one ot the hallmark little red plastic stools (a bow to street food verisimilitude) and an overturned plastic "milk crate" serving as a table.

RPS thoughtfully provides the menu in advance by email, so you can do your research (and your fantasizing about delicious street eats) ahead of time. I went armed with my selection of two small plates -- Butter Braised Sweet Corn and Dried Shrimp and Wild Rock Shrimp Chips -- and one main, Crab and Shrimp Rice Noodle Soup.  There was a featured, order-in-advance dish on the menu, Pan Seared Turmeric Fish, but I demurred because of Guilao Fear of Fish Bones (GFFB) Syndrome and too many close encounters with yellowfish soup at home and abroad.

The corn and shrimp dish (bap xao) was one of the most delicious thing I have tasted in a long time and little short of transcendental. Katie Kwan, according to her blog, is obsessed with it and I immediately saw why. If I ever get to Hanoi I can imagine searching for the best dish of bap xao the same way I am always searching for the perfect bowl of xian doujiang on the streets of Shanghai.  Described on the menu as "Barbegelata Farms corn sauteed with Thai chili and scallion oil," it is simplicity itself in concept, but combines sweetness (from the corn), saltiness (dried shrimp) and chili spiciness in a wondrous trifecta of flavors that's probably difficult to hit on the nose. Rice Paper Scissors did it.

I can also say the shrimp chips (which wise Google tells me are called bánh phồng tôm) were the best I've ever had. This is not surprising since they were the first I've ever had that were made from scratch, not from opening a bag or throwing some disks out of a box into hot oil. They were described as housemade, using wild caught wild shrimp, and had just the right crunch, saltiness and oiliness. 

My main course, the crab and shrimp rice soup, was somewhat less rewarding. It was a complex and obviously labor intensive affair, with the pulverized crab and shrimp in a melange of tomatoes, dried tofu, herbs and rice noodles, but perhaps too subtle for my untrained palate. I probably would have insulted it by squirting sriracha into it if there had been  a bottle of hot cock handy. To me it mostly tasted of tomato; perhaps the designer label heirloom tomatoes were too intensely tomatoey, or it could be that the dish was just too reminiscent of the numerous bowls of tomato and egg soup that I've been fed whenever my wife was short on cooking time.

Tomato soup aside, I'll eagerly return for RPS's next "ghost" event, as they call it, and try anything they put on their menu, particularly along street food lines. And if they run out of new-to-me items, there's always their banh mi awaiting.

On a side note, I left the popup an hour or two before Mister Anthony Bourdain made a "surprise" appearance (which had been hinted at by  a local food blogger and anticipated by a clutch of people armed with cameras and an air of expectation). I regret missing the great man's presence, but I can gloat about once again beating him in discovering a street food venue. By a nose.

Mentioned: @ricepapersf, @littleknock, @kitchensidecar

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