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Vietnamese Fish Dish

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Here's a question that arose from Sat. nite's meal at Pho Bac (in Elmhust, Queens, for those who don't follow that board.) Hoping for help in solving a mystery -- an apparent disconnect between what was described on the menu and what arrived on the plate.

Sorry I didn't grab a take-out menu so I could tell you the name of the dish. It's #20 on the menu - described as either snapper or something else I like (but can't remember right now,) marinated then grilled, accompanied by various green things, leaves, etc. Description evocative of a typical grilled meat dish that comes with basil, sprouts etc. on the side, plus lettuce leaves for wrapping.

What we got was a whole fish, hard to tell if it was grilled or fried, slathered with a sweet/hot caramelized onion sauce (not so different from the taste of their caramelized fish casserole.) Fish not so tasty (I'm thinking tilapia,) though the yummy sauce does a pretty good job of covering the taste. No greenery in sight. Not the healthy-sounding thing we envisioned (of course we finished it all, both times we've had it.)

The first time we got it, we asked the waiter (actually as I recall it was the owner) if this was what we ordered, and he assured us it was. We chalked it up to a failure to communicate - at some point in the ordering chain. So this weekend we thought we'd give it another shot - and wouldn't you know, we got the same thing. (And yeah, a different waiter this time confirmed that this is what we ordered.)

So what's up? My theory is that somebody put the wrong English description next to the Vietnamese words, so when we ask for #20, we're thinking "grilled/crisp/green," the waiter & chef are thinking "onion sauce." Any other ideas? (Like, we just guessed wrong? Or, "Stick to the Pho?")

BTW, off-topic but in the neighborhood, that old supermarket next to Joe's has reopened as a big, Asian market to give Hong Kong around the corner a run for their money. Seemed like the same merch in both places. Some big price wars going on - like HK charging a mere 99 cents for 1/2 gallon of milk. Based on a survey of heavily-laden plastic bags seen on the street, shoppers are still going to HK, but buying at the new place as well. Wonder if there's enough traffic to support both.

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  1. we have had the same experience you describe several times at Viet, Chinese and Thai restaurants, including the otherwise good pho tu do; whatever whole fish we order, we get a deep fried fish, usually overcooked , sometimes in sweet and sour or other undistinguished sauce, sometimes totally naked.Yet we generally get good meals and see more interesting fish preparations on other tables. Don't know why the service falls apart on this one item. ps I felt the staff at the Elmhurst Pho Bac was noticeably uninterested in serving big-nosed barbarians, and the food was uninspired when we visited last winter.

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    1. re: jen kalb

      I have to second Jens comments on "what you read isn't what you get". My first experiences years ago in Phila.
      I was told not to expect literal translations of the menu concerning fish. Example, we ordered "lobster salad", what we got was a whole boiled lobster on a plate, thats it! So where was the salad part? It didn't matter, the lobster was great and cheap.