Oh deary me, I had another ‘moment’ yesterday. Not quite as extreme as the durian episode – there was no hand-flapping or hyperventilation – but I squirmed, I grimaced, and I had to put it aside. The culprit? Sliced liver. That bile-producing organ just about did me in.
It happened yesterday when I had a late lunch at Pho Queen. It’s a spacious restaurant with a large chandelier hanging at its centre, and is located in the same mall as Hanppy Tofu Pot House and Bubble World.
When I walked in at 3pm it was completely empty, except for a woman who was sitting at a table, methodically filling spring rolls that would be fried later. She pointed to a table, told me the menu was already on it, and said to let her know when I was ready. It’s not for everyone, but I love unobtrusive service like that, especially when I’m hauling around a big backpack and camera.
Their menu is quite standard, with appetizers, various noodle soups, vermicelli, rice dishes, and combos. I decided it was about time to try ‘Chao Tom,’ which is grilled shrimp paste on sugar cane (two pieces for $6), and also ordered the Phnom Penh Egg Noodle Soup (which can also come dry) with liver, heart, shrimp, squid, and pork (Small: $6.50).
The chao tom were wonderful, and I felt pleased with myself for finally enjoying this kind of dish. You see, it’s taken me awhile to come around to the idea of pureed shrimp that bounces when cooked, and I’ve come across it frequently in Richmond. I often find it to be a bit too rubbery, and not all that flavourful.
These chao tom, however, converted me. In the Vietnamese version, shrimp paste is made by pureeing whole shrimp with egg, garlic, various spices, and fish sauce. The resulting mixture is then chilled, wrapped around chunks of fresh sugarcane, and grilled or fried. I came across several recipes with paprika in the mixture, and assume it’s one of the spices Pho Queen uses, as their chao tom were an orangey-pink colour.
The texture was ‘bouncy’ but tender, and the cooked shrimp paste was beautifully seasoned. The savoury flavours were offset by the sweet sugarcane, which I chewed on as I ate. Those things are a lot juicier than I expected!
My ‘small’ bowl of soup was quite large, as usual, and came with the regular side of bean sprouts, chopped pepper, Thai basil, and lime wedge.
I’d never had egg noodles in Vietnamese soup, and at first they looked a little out of place. I’m more used to seeing fresh egg pasta tossed with ragu than bean sprouts, but they were a nice change from rice noodles.
The soup broth was very clear, and one of the stronger I’ve had in Richmond. I liked it. The prawns and squid were nicely-cooked, though the pork seemed to have been replaced by soft pieces of artificial crab. That didn’t bother me, but was a little odd. And let’s not forget the heart and liver, shall we? They looked pretty much the same – thin slices of grey – but I assumed certain pieces were heart because they were so chewy, and other pieces were liver because they were so vile.
Which leads me to what I learned about myself yesterday! Turns out I LOVE liver, but only in certain ways. If it’s mixed with a bunch of fat and spices and pressed into a soft pate, I’m likely to eat the whole thing. If it’s my friend Aviv’s chicken liver galette, I’ll ask for seconds, perhaps thirds. But if it’s boiled and put into a bowl of Vietnamese soup, I have issues. Or at least I did with this stuff.
To me, it tasted like mud that’s been packed, sliced, marinated in stomach juice, and served as food. But please, don’t let my sad liver story put you off! Pho Queen has plenty of options on their menu, and their Chao Tom are a delight. And hey, maybe you love this style of liver! I by no means expect my own tastes to be those of others. I would totally go back to Pho Queen, and just stick with beef, tripe, and of course some bouncy shrimp.
ps – it’s much easier to cleanse your mouth of the taste of liver than it is durian. MUCH easier.
Cash and cards accepted
Vegetarian options available