The name of the Gretna restaurant Kim Son means "golden mountain," but whenever I hear it I think of "salt baked" seafood, of an exceptional, multi-course beef dinner and one of the best tofu dishes in town.
Kim Son proprietor Tina Dieu and her family must have seemed like trailblazers when they opened their restaurant near the Oakwood Center in 1988, a time when Vietnamese set pieces such as pho, bun and spring rolls had nowhere near the local popular appeal they enjoy today. But even as such dishes proliferate across the New Orleans dining scene, a roster of distinctive house specialties sets Kim Son apart.
Among these specialties are rang muoi dishes, which are loosely though inaccurately translated as "salt baked." They aren't baked or particularly salty but instead are wok-fried and smothered with onion and black pepper. The misnomer shouldn't give much pause to New Orleanians who know that barbecue shrimp have 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.
The fried shells of salt-baked shrimp are too crunchy for me (I peel them, others eat the tails whole), though scallops and squid given the same treatment are easier to love. A tofu dish prepared in the salt-baked style is one of my favorite meatless meals, especially when paired with a plate of garlicky sauteed 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 for a portable, table-top brazier on which you grill thinly sliced, marinated beef with knobs of butter before folding them into rice paper rolls with fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and fish sauce. You decide how crisp or tender to cook the meat. I like to vary the texture for a contrast in each roll. The bo nhung dam entails a similar process, though this dish requires you to dredge raw beef in a "fondue" of bubbling rice vinegar.
These dishes are best when shared around the table, but to really put Kim Son through its paces find a willing dining companion and get the Imperial Seven (or Bo 7 Mon). For $35 total, the staff will ferry out a progressive dinner for two with seven courses of beef. The grilled and fondue dishes above start things off, then there's broiled beef encased in grilled green onions, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and peanuts, strips of caramelized, slightly chewy beef and a dish of cool, rare beef with onions and lemon juice that tastes like Vietnamese carpaccio. Then, as if standing in for dessert, the meal ends with a soupy rice porridge with shallots, pepper and, of course, bits of ground beef.
The Imperial Seven may not spring to mind as often as pho, but those planning to bid adieu to meat during Lent this year may want to consider it for a memorable last indulgence.