The thing that caught my eye about the menu at Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park was the porridge. Vietnamese porridge is not something you see on menus at most Vietnamese restaurants. Stu put it perfectly: “It’s usually something sexier than porridge.” Most people associate Vietnamese food with pho, or the banh mi sandwich, which have become iconic to Vietnamese cuisine in America, much like pad thai is associated with Thai cuisine, or tacos with Mexican cuisine (the latter examples being so ubiquitous that I didn’t even have to italicize them).
Porridge, on the other hand, is something people might associate with anthropomorphized bears rather than Southeastern Asian cuisine. Vietnamese porridge (chao) is a broth (usually chicken) made with bits of broken rice, chicken (usually the whole chicken, gizzards and all), cilantro/herbs, and served with a tangy cabbage slaw. And it was something that my mom always made when I was sick. So while other kids were sipping on chicken noodle soup and watching The Price is Right on their sick days, I slurped down chicken hearts and livers in a hot bowl of porridge. Which brings me to my first caveat for this review (and probably any other review of Vietnamese restaurants forthcoming):
I have recently realized that my appreciation of Vietnamese food is entirely based on my childhood eating my mom’s cooking. My mom made dinner every night. Everyday she woke up at 5am to help my dad get ready for work, make coffee, tended her garden, and then she usually went to the grocery store around 10am, started cooking dinner around 2pm or 3pm in the afternoon, and dinner would be hot on the table around 6:30pm. And usually by mid-meal she would wonder aloud, “I don’t know what to make tomorrow,” but she would always figure it out and she would do it all over again the next day. I was not old enough or wise enough to realize then how much energy that took or how lucky I was to get a home-cooked meal every night. But as I have been fending for myself for the past few years, not only has my appreciation of her and her cooking grown, but so have my nostalgia for those shared meals. So when I eat a bowl of pho, I think of my mom waking me up on a Saturday morning to take me out to breakfast (yes, pho is a breakfast food) and putting all the tripe from her bowl into mine (because she knew it was my favorite). Or when I eat a banh mi sandwich, I think of the meat-stuffed French loaves wrapped in white butcher paper with a single colored rubber-band around it waiting for me on the table when I would come home from Vietnamese school on Sundays. Food was the way my mom communicated – so whether she was making porridge or taking me out to pho, they were little ways to show me that she loved me.
And that is why it is difficult for me to objectively eat Vietnamese food. It’s loaded with too much nostalgia for me. No matter how much I try to distinguish the intrinsic tastes or properties of the food, some part of me is always asking, “How does this compare with Mom’s?”
Good Girl Dinette advertises “American Diner meets Vietnamese Comfort Food” which is an intriguing tagline. I was recommended to get the Spicy Fries with Cilantro-Maggi Mayo, so we got those to start. It also bears mentioning that Stu and I (unwisely) starved ourselves in preparation of eating at Good Girl, which we don’t recommend doing. Ever. No matter how good of an idea that may seem earlier in the day.
The Spicy Fries were good; they’re seasoned with cilantro and minced jalapenos, but the seasoning doesn’t really stick to the fries that well, so they end up just tasting like fries. Which is, by no means, a bad thing. But if you are expecting something greater than the sum of its parts, you might be disappointed. We also got the vegetarian spring rolls and rice cakes with crisp scallion tofu, which were refreshing and light.
So post-first-course, I was ready to give the restaurant a “satisfactory” grade. It’s a nice enough fusion-y, hip take on Vietnamese food with aesthetically pleasing presentation. To me, it seemed slightly more form than function with its small portion sizes; maybe the kind of place you would take a first date or some visiting-from-out-of-town family to show off the “hipness” of LA. In essence, I was ready to shrug my proverbial shoulders at the experience, but then the Pork Confit came out…
I admit that I didn’t fully associate what “confit” meant when I ordered it. I had had my heart set on getting the porridge, but they were out of porridge when we went. So I was really hungry (from the aforementioned pre-meal starving) and disappointed at the lack of porridge, so the pork confit sounded like the most interesting choice.
The moment I put the sizzling hot, sweet, caramelized pork in my mouth, I was TRANSPORTED. You know that scene in Ratatouille where the heartless food critic Anton Ego tastes the (spoiler alert) ratatouille and is reduced to a vulnerable child at his mother’s kitchen table? That was basically my experience at Good Girl Dinette. Actually, this whole review should have just read: “Go watch Ratatouille. It was basically like that.” You can ask Stu what the rest of the meal was like, because I honestly don’t remember, because I was in a haze. I think I just started grunting and making loud exclamations of pleasure because, seriously, that shit was crazy.
The Pork Confit sat in a miniature ceramic pot, and came with a bowl of rice and side of sautéed Chinese broccoli. It’s a great combination because the pork is salty and the broccoli is crisp and a little bitter. When you eat them both together with the rice, it tastes like home (maybe not your home, but definitely my home). This is a dish that, in Vietnamese, is called thit kho, and was typically something my mom made when she didn’t feel like making anything in particular. It was her easy, go-to meal. Sort of like if your mom was like, “I didn’t have time or energy to cook tonight, so we are all having grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner” – minimum effort, simple, and delicious. Thit kho was my mom’s grilled cheese. She would pull a slab of pork out of the freezer (something she would always have on hand), slice the meat very thin, throw it in a clay pot with seasoning, and let it sit for the whole day. By dinnertime, it was a caramelized, sweet, candied pot of pork that we would eat with white rice – Vietnamese simplicity. The best part about it was that the leftovers would taste even better, because the longer the pork would sit the clay pot with all its seasoning and juices, the more sticky and flavorful it would become. So being that I always knew that dish as thit kho, and had always associated it with an “off-day” for my mom, I didn’t make the connection that it would translate to a fancy title like “Pork Confit.”
I think Good Girl’s tagline of “American Diner meets Vietnamese Comfort Food” is pretty spot on. I personally liked the “Vietnamese Comfort Food” half of the tagline better than the “American Diner” half. And as far as comfort food of any kind goes, I can’t make a better recommendation than to say that it is actually “just like Mom used to make.”