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Not So Summery

June 22, 2011

What do you like to eat when it’s hot outside?

Despite growing up in Miami, some of the hottest summers I’ve encountered were in Philadelphia. Miami during the summer is freezing because everyone cranks their air conditioning so that it’s sixty-two degrees, no matter where you go. There is air conditioning everywhere. In some places, they even air condition the outdoors.

Philly was a different story. The place where I was living had no air conditioning, and it was sweltering. I had no appetite at all. Thankfully there were fruit salad carts on almost every street corner, where I could pick up some cooling and refreshing sustenance.

I don’t like being hot. I don’t like sitting out in the sun. And I don’t like sweating.

But last week I needed to mow the lawn. And even after taking a long cold shower to try and lower my core temperature, I was still warm. The big problem was that I was hungry, since I hadn’t eaten anything that day. However, I had a great idea for what I hoped would be a delicious and cooling lunch.


That would be the classic Vietnamese noodle salad. And I figured there was one obvious place to get it, the locally beloved Van’s. After all, they do great things with rice vermicelli in their pho.

We actually have two Vietnamese restaurants in Albany, which is perhaps more than we deserve. We have the expensive one and the really really expensive one. It makes the expensive one look cheap in comparison. But cheap it is not.

In San Francisco, I would routinely get a solid plate of bun for around five bucks. In Albany, at the “cheap” place it’s closer to ten dollars. Actually, it might be twice as big, but it’s half as good. Maybe even less than half.

Because it’s not bad, it’s just plain wrong.

Bun should be a summery noodle salad. It’s a salad. Salad. It’s a cold, refreshing dish of lettuce, sprouts, cucumber, carrots, basil and cilantro. Yes, there are some chilled rice vermicelli, a bit of meat, a sprinkling of peanuts and it is dressed with nuoc cham. It’s insanely aromatic, bright, clean, sweet, hot, crisp, tangy, chewy and satisfying.

Someone at Van’s seems to have forgotten this is supposed to be a salad. Or maybe the restaurant has changed the dish over the years to reflect regional tastes. This wouldn’t be the first time a food has suffered at the hands of our friends and neighbors. Apparently Paesan’s used to make some mighty fine pizza before the people of Albany demanded it be changed for the worse.

But one thing is clear. The bun at Van’s is not a salad. It’s a pasta dish.

Not only that, it’s a hot pasta dish. What few vegetables were put on the plate wilted under the heat of the noodles. So maybe I should be thankful for their absence. And there were virtually no aromatics. I wish I could say there were none. But every now and again, an errant bite would contain just a bit of bright fresh basil.

It was just enough to remind me about what this dish was supposed to taste like, and what I was missing bite after heavy and sodden bite.

Luckily I asked to be seated at table seven, which has the air conditioning vent hiding beneath the tablecloth. Apparently they don’t generally sit people there because it’s too cold and drafty. And it’s very cold, and very drafty. So despite not getting the food that I wanted, in the end, I got what I came for. My hunger was satisfied and I had fully recovered from the heat of my mow.

Just know this: if the bun at Van’s is the only bun you’ve eaten, you don’t know bun.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Elyse permalink
    June 23, 2011 8:18 am

    “We have the expensive one and the really really expensive one”

    Ha ha- so true. Expensive Vietnamese food is just weird to me. Maybe because the really cheap stuff is so good.

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