The "salt-baked" dishes at a Gretna Vietnamese restaurant are neither baked, nor particularly salty, but they sure are delicious.
The name of the Gretna restaurant Kim Son means golden mountain, but whenever I hear it I think immediately of a range of seafood dishes mysteriously called salt-baked. I think of an exceptional, multi-course beef dinner. And I think of one of the best tofu dishes in town.
Kim Son proprietress Tina Dieu and her family must have seemed like trailblazers when they opened their restaurant near the Oakwood shopping center in 1988, a time when such Vietnamese set pieces as pho, the noodle salad called bun and even spring rolls had nowhere near the local popular appeal they enjoy today. But as such dishes proliferate across the New Orleans dining scene, a roster of distinctive house specialties still set Kim Son apart.
Among these specialties are a range of dishes loosely, though inaccurately, translated as “salt baked.” They aren’t baked or particularly salty. They’re actually wok-fried and smothered with onion and black pepper. The misnomer shouldn’t give much pause to New Orleanians, who know that BBQ shrimp really has nothing to do with barbecue. The salt baked crabs are especially good. Served in the shell and hacked into quarters, they make the palate pulse with peppery spice and cover the fingers with buttery sauce. It’s a dish for a group to attack with hungry abandon, and it feels very much like an Asian-flavored version of a crab boil. It’s just as messy too.
The fried shells of salt baked shrimp are too crunchy for me, so I peel them, though I know other people who eat the tails whole. A tofu dish prepared in the salt baked style is one of my favorite meatless meals, especially when paired with a plate of garlicky sautéed greens like gai lan, or water spinach.
Other specialties here belong to a category of interactive and entertaining dishes cooked at the table. Ordering the bo nuong vi, for instance, calls forth a portable, table-top grill on which you cook thin-sliced, marinated beef with knobs of butter before folding them into rice paper rolls with a profusion of fresh herbs and pickled vegetables. The bo nhung dam entails a similar process, though this time you dredge the raw beef in a sort of fondue of bubbling rice vinegar.
These dishes are best when shared around the table, but to really put Kim Son through its paces find one willing dining companion and get an extravaganza of a meal called the Imperial Seven. Then behold as the staff ferries out a progressive dinner for two with seven courses, all of them of beef. The grilled and fondue dishes I just mentioned start things off, then there’s broiled beef encased in grilled green onions, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, strips of caramelized, jerky-like beef and a dish of cool, rare beef with onions and lemon juice that tastes like a Vietnamese carpaccio. Then, for dessert, the meal ends with a soupy rice porridge of shallots, pepper and, of course, beef.
A savory dessert, beef fondue and salt-baked seafood that’s neither salty nor baked – Kim Son sure can throw a few curve balls. But that’s alright. Intrepid New Orleans eaters aren’t the type to let semantics get in the way of a great meal.
349 Whitney Ave., Gretna, 504-366-2489