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What price broken rice?

Was at Bale’s (“Baa-Lay’s”) Restaurant & Deli last night (6925 Linda Vista Road, Suite B, at Ulric Street, Linda Vista, 858-297-2707). Vietnamese.

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Here you expect to find Pho (the French-inspired Vietnamese beef and other broths) and banh mi (the French-inspired mini-baguette Vietnamese sandwiches).

But instead of suggesting these, Mr. Tanh urged me to try something completely different: “Com Tam Ba Le, Bale’s special broken rice dish.”

“Com Tam” means “broken rice,” he says. “‘Ba Le’ is just ‘Bale,’ but Vietnamese hate to have words of more than one syllable.”

Whatever, the broken rice dish is something special here. For $8.99 you get this generous selection of different foods, all sitting on a mound of broken rice. Tina the gal at the counter brings it within five minutes.

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Tanh the waiter explains what I’ve got. “Barbecue shrimp,” he says, “Barbecue pork, fried egg, shredded pork with peanut crumbles, pork sausage slices, shrimp patty, shrimp and ground pork tofu patty with bean-curd skin around it, egg loaf…a kind of omelet with bean thread clear noodles, mushrooms, shrimp, pork and crab, and the salad…”

On and on he goes. He’s talking about pickled carrot shreds, daikon, slices of pickled heart of cabbage, the chicken soup that’s included and the nuoc mam, Vietnamese fish sauce. Smells fishy but sweet.

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I mean just imagine what these nine bucks’d buy in, say, Little Italy. One giant pretzel at Queenstown?

Fifteen minutes later I’m still plowing through the shrimp and pork and tofu and sausage slices. But I have one question.

“What’s broken rice?”

Tanh says it is the broken-up leftover grains from the rice factories. Or rice that farmers dry in the sun on roads which sometimes gets rained on and then only partially dried again, and, I guess, cracks.

“Com Tam (‘broken rice’) is the poor man’s rice,” he says. “But all Vietnamese people love it. And its flavor: a kind of starchiness that comes from being broken. It’s not smooth like whole, long-grained rice. We like it specially with barbecued pork. We are a sentimental people. It is like ‘down-home’ feeling. It reminds us of things.”

I pour nuoc mam over mine. Hmm. Wonder if I can honestly tell the difference? Going to have to come back and try again.

More in upcoming Tin Fork.

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