Chim cút rô ti: Marinated quails in caramelized sauce with onions and butter
Stay-at-home orders may keep us from going out to restaurants, but it doesn’t mean they can keep us from trying new things.
4134 University Avenue, San Diego
Early on during this age of social isolation, my cravings went for the familiar and comforting, mainly tried and true restaurants I’ve already been to dozens of times and hope to re-visit dozens of times more. But with recent projections indicating coronavirus infections in San Diego won’t near their peak until May, it looks like we could be stuck with take-out and delivery only for a while.
Since hundreds of local restaurants have remained open and preparing food, there’s room to look around to find something new. I found it at Que Huong, a Vietnamese restaurant in City Heights open for take-out and delivery. In that regard, it’s offered through multiple delivery apps, but also offers delivery of its own, if you call in.
Nai lúc lắc: Marinated deer meat with onion and butter. Served with lime, salt, and pepper.
Que Huong may be best known for phở noodle soups and chicken wings with fish sauce. But its menu is huge, and veers into areas most restaurants dare not tread. For example, if you’ve never tried ếch before, you’ll find several preparations of it here: Ếch being the Vietnamese word meaning frog. Yes, Que Huong serves frog legs, either pan-fried with chili and lemongrass, served in a coconut milk sauce, sautéed in butter, or grilled.
Okay, I didn’t order frogs legs. Nor did I take the opportunity to order ốc, better known as escargot. I have tried snail before — recently in fact, and it was great. Dining in at Que Huong I might even consider trying the escargot made from whelk, a.k.a. sea snail. But spending 13 or 14 bucks each to try frog legs or snail via delivery seemed especially risky. The texture of things seem important, and who knows what steaming in a styrofoam container during transit might do? Same goes for the deep fried lươn, which Google calls Asian swamp eel.
But you’ll recall, the Que Huong menu runs deep, and beyond the beef and seafood soups, rice and noodle dishes, and fish cooked in clay pots, there are still plenty of unexpected menu items and corresponding Vietnamese terms to learn. Such as chim cút, which is quail, butter fried or marinated with coriander for 13 bucks. I got mine fried in caramelized sauce, each little half bird with a tacky, sticky, almost crispy skin reminiscent of chicken wings with fish sauce. It's not as meaty as chicken, but more delicate and flavorful.
Heo rừng, wild boar, stir fried with lemongrass and red peppers for $18, might have been my next order, but I’ve tried boar many times. Dê too (goat). What I haven’t is nai: deer, meat I suppose we would call venison. I’d had it in sausage, and made into beef jerky. But not straight up. The deer here may be cooked in a coconut milk sauce for $20, but I went for the 16-dollar nai lúc lắc, which is prepared like a shaking beef dish: marinated and cooked in a skillet with butter and onions, served with lettuce and cucumber. Were I to order it in the restaurant, it would come out on a skillet platter, still sizzling.
At home, it didn’t sizzle, but it still tasted savory like beef, but leaner, with only the slightest gaminess. It reminded me of the venison jerky I’ve tried in flavor, but without the toughness of course. There was plenty of kick to the peppers cooked with it. I’ll be excited to try this again.
I suppose, in the future, any time I’m served venison I’ll be reminded that first deer entree I ate was during the pandemic of 2020. Hopefully I’ll remember it helped break the monotony of social isolation.