On our first adventure last night, we decided to have a traditional Vietnamese meal at Oklahoma City’s wonderful “Golden Phoenix.” There were a few reasons for this:
- We had just watched Anthony Bourdain (one of my personal heroes) bad-assing through Vietnam on “No Reservations” and got inspired.
- Danny’s the only one in our group with any family ties, knowledge, or language experience in another culture, which happens to be Vietnam.
- Oklahoma’s Vietnamese food is the real deal.
Seriously, the “Asian District” in Oklahoma City has more pho, banh mi, and dim sum restaurants than we’d ever be able to blog about if we devoted a whole year just to them. And in the center of all these restaurants is the Super Cao Nguyen, the Asian supermarket to end all supermarkets, packed with ingredients and products most of us have never heard of. So if we’re going to find authentic cuisine in Oklahoma City, this seems like a good place to start. This square mile in the heart of the city probably has the largest concentration of any foreign culture (on the northside at least, stay tuned), and lucky for us, they brought their cuisine with them.
So, Golden Phoenix. This is not your typical watered-down for the American palette egg-roll and sweet-and-sour sauce Asian food with which most of us are familiar. This is authentic stuff you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else but Vietnam. A menu with 300 items? Sure. They’ve got everything ranging from the tame (beef noodle soup), to the really exotic (congealed blood, anyone?). So to begin, we searched through the menu for something veggie-friendly (for Otis and Shelby), something freaky (for me), and things that Danny happens to know are good from growing up eating them.
First thing I tried was the “Crispy Pork Bean Curd Hot Pot.” ($9.95) The “Hot Pot” it’s served in is exactly what it sounds like: a hot iron pot which keeps the food warm through the whole meal. Good idea! In retrospect, I don’t know if this was the best place to start because it was the best part of the meal for me. It was a mysterious bowl of tofu, pork bits and herbs all mixed into a sweet brown sauce. It also has the added fun of being a treasure hunt for the precious pieces of pork skin, little fat-lined curls which I described as “football textured,” and I mean that in the best way possible.
Next was the vegetarian dish, “Crispy Yellow Egg Noodle Topped with Stir Fried Vegetable and Tofu.” ($8.95) I’m not one for vegetarian dishes, but this was actually fantastic. Great texture between the soft tofu and the little crispy dry noodles, and the bok choy had a wonderful crunch and flavor.
Now here’s the dish I was most looking forward to, the not-for-the-faint-of-heart, startlingly authentic “Spicy Beef Noodle Soup from Hue with Beef, Pork Bologna, and Thick Round Rice Noodle.” ($6.50) I carefully composed my picture of it to show the congealed beef blood in the lower left-hand foreground. Yes, that’s what that is, and yes, Otis and I both ate it. To be honest, the blood didn’t have a lot of flavor on its own. The soup is a thick, spicy, complex broth that tastes like nothing else I had. I want to compare it to Pho, and I’m sure it comes from a similar beef stock, but there’s a lot more going on. It’s almost like perfume in its intensity. Dig more through the soup and you find a big chunk of beef attached to two disc-shaped bones (don’t ask me which part of the cow it is, I never found out). It was a challenge to tear the meat from the bone with only chopsticks and a spoon, but it was well worth it. It was a wonderfully tender cut of beef with thick layers of fat. Best part is, the fat was not at all gummy or hard to chew, it melted in your mouth. Sound gross? Then stick to Panda Express.
We finished with something a bit lighter (though it doesn’t sound like it), the “Yellow Egg Noodle Supreme with Shrimp, Pork, Crabmeat, and Squid.” I’m sure when this blog is translated into German there will be one specific word to describe that, but in the meantime, sorry for the wordiness. It was a broth-y mix of seafood that was just different enough from everything else we’d had; a nice, warm palette cleanser after all the sound and the fury of the spicy blood-and-bone soup.
To top it all off, we had coconut milk right out of a coconut. And just a warning kids, it does not taste like coconut-flavored candy or shaved coconut. It’s a cloudy, watery liquid with a strange, musky taste with just a hint of the “coconut” flavor we’re all familiar with. I didn’t think it was delicious, but there’s pleasure to be found in tasting something that is totally unrecognizable and unique.
So is Golden Phoenix worth the trip? Definitely. When you’re in this place, eating this food, surrounded by the almost exclusively Asian customers from the neighborhood, you feel as if you’ve left Oklahoma City. In addition to the food, the atmosphere feels authentic: nicer-than-you’d-expect decor, juxtaposed with tanks of live fish and a window displaying whole roast ducks and chickens. And the best part is, have you been paying attention to the prices? The four of us had more food than we possibly would have been able to eat, and it was all for under $40.00. Is there anywhere else in town where you can have exotic food from halfway across the world for less than $10 per person? We shall soon find out!
*Golden Phoenix is open daily for lunch and dinner.