PPeople who go to Chinatown’s The Pig & the Lady and order nothing but pho and summer rolls miss out on the essentials. Both are very good, but you can get a lot more noodle soups at partner restaurant Piggy Smalls and at the Pig Farmer’s Market stalls, where all of these bowls were born. Pig’s point is that despite his Vietnamese roots, the Viet is just the starting point. The spiral explorations that end up on your plate may include references to American, French, Japanese, Filipino, Italian, Tahitian, Scandinavian, and local cuisine, all accompanied by a Vietnamese yin-and-yang balance compass: sweet and crunchy, sweet and sour, spicy and salty, hot and cold.
So the text I received from Pig manager Alex Le was short (“Hi Mari, we have a new dinner menu. Please come and try it when you can”) but meaningful. Like other restaurants during the pandemic, Pig survived thanks to its take-out business, its reduced menu of spring rolls, banh mi sandwiches, noodles, rice platters and its signature fried chicken. Now the restaurant has revamped almost its entire dinner menu. That’s not just why I’m writing this – before the pandemic, Pig revamped their menus almost every season. I write because the new menu is strong. It’s vintage pig, unexpected but just familiar enough, and a reminder of why Chef Andrew Le has been worth watching since the James Beard Foundation named him a semi-finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2014. To be honest, I did more. than to follow his career: I have been eating his food since before the Le family founded Pig, more than 10 years ago when he was sous-chef in Chef Mavro’s kitchen; During this time, I became part of the large Pig family and traveled with them to Los Angeles, Hanoi and Tokyo, where Loan “Mama” Le was my roommate.
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Le is one of my favorite chefs because of his off the beaten track creativity and ability to deliver those yin-yang balances. Three of us familiar with his cooking went wild at dinner last Friday, ordering five entrees and two entrees; Les sent four more dishes, which the restaurant prepared. Here’s a look at the strongest recommendations on Pig’s new menu.
Half of the new one-page menu is dedicated to sharing nibbles. This Kona kampachi ‘aguachile’ ($ 16) layers sashimi slices in a chilled, spicy, tangy mustard cabbage broth, with little crunchies of radish, cucumber, tomatillo, jalapeño and shiso. This is the first time that I have eaten sashimi in soup, with a spoon. This first course is a revelation, literally. It awakens the palate and prepares the mind for more the unexpected.
Banh khot ($ 16) is a snack from the streets of Hue, Vietnam’s former imperial capital, where food tends to be more subdued than in the Chinese-influenced tropical north and south. These turmeric rice flour cakes are fried, like in Hue; unlike Hue, they’re topped with coconut cream and smoked trout roe. You wrap them in lettuce with fresh herbs and pickles, dip them in nuoc cham and they take you to elevated, reinvented Vietnam.
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Scallops ($ 7 each) are familiar but grilled and drenched in uni-chile satay butter and drizzled with lemon juice, they’re irresistible.
Yes, it’s a tomato salad ($ 14). I wasn’t thrilled with it (my table mates ordered it) but ended up picking up the last bits of the plate. Large, sweet local tomatoes sit in a bath of burnt strawberry and guava vinaigrette. It’s the tofu cloud on top (yes, tofu!), Whipped with aged white soy sauce that gives it an all-cheesy umami, that makes the dish.
Mama Le’s Chicken Liver Pate is a collector’s item when it appears in farmers’ markets. Here it goes on toasted baguettes with calamansi jelly, pink peppercorns, and fresh rau ram herbs ($ 12), all creamy and plump and sweet and crunchy. Of the six entrees we taste, the only one I wouldn’t order is the chrysanthemum and radicchio salad with plums, salted lemon and parmesan vinaigrette ($ 12); it’s good, but not as memorable as the rest.
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The climax. Linguine with Manila Clams and Rau Ram Herb Sausage ($ 22) contains addicting nuances of shrimp shell broth (the menu lists it as “Hanoi shrimp paste”) and the occasional lemon sparkle. The deep, fermented combination of shrimp and lemon is the classic Le, the bites layering multiple depths of umami with brightness, meat and herbs. Alex Le tells us he was inspired by the hen com, an inexpensive dish of tiny clams mixed with leftover rice, chili peppers and fresh herbs and layered on rice crackers, also from central Vietnam. I had it in a wooden cabin overlooking a jungle stream on the outskirts of Hoi An; this buttery pasta is both familiar and not at all like it. This sent Him. We ordered the Spaghetti Bolognese with Calamari ($ 23), which has no meat in it but adds dried pork fat to the tomato sauce, but for me the combination of cooked minced squid and crispy dried squid. exceeds other flavors.
At $ 65, the bone-in chop is the most expensive thing on the menu, but none of us can resist the description (“slow roasted then glazed with savory fish sauce and black pepper caramel”). If you want something that’s overtly but not quite Vietnamese, get this – it comes with jasmine rice and is enough for a meal for two big appetites, three medium eaters, or, along with other dishes, shared between. four or more. Wrapped in lettuce with classic pickles and herbs, topped with a fermented spicy sauce and soaked in nuoc cham, the fatty ends dissolve in the mouth amid the acidity and vegetable crunch; the firmer inner slices are tender and lifted by the icing. We’re all full already, but all of our stomachs make room for several bites.
Longtime Pig fans will recognize what just happened: Pig’s Spirit is back. Andrew Le would text me later: “I wanted this menu to be a statement we’ve had through the COVID times. It has been a long road to restore Chinatown to what it is today. “
Open Tuesdays 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., 83 N. King St., (808) 585-8255, thepigandthelady.com, @pigandthelady