The Culineers Experience Their Own Vietnam
“I’m just saying chicken and eggs are not that commonly served together for an obvious reason,” Veal Parmstrong is addressing the table with his theory about the dish we’re preparing to eat. Seven of us are packed in at a corner table in the loud, smokey patio of Cafe Artist — a strip mall restaurant located in the Little Saigon district of Garden Grove, CA.
“Because,” Veal continued, eager to get to his theory’s money-shot. “It’s disturbing to have the mother and child on the same plate.”
I’d never thought of that and would have preferred to keep it that way. I certainly didn’t want to be dwelling on it now — minutes before eating the dish we’d traveled from Los Angeles for. Balut, a developing duck embryo boiled and served in the shell, is the evening’s main attraction and as the enormous egg is placed in front of me, I wish I hadn’t Google-Imaged the term that morning.
Tonight is the monthly meeting of our men’s dining group and as is our wont, we’re here to taste something out of the ordinary. The Culineers (as we’re known to… well, mostly ourselves), when not working entertainment industry day jobs, are adventurers at heart. It is no coincidence during outings we refer to each by our food-themed adventure nicknames (Veal Parmstrong, Prawns de Leon, Marco Pollo, to name a few) if we’re sober enough to remember them.
The group is a little drunker than usual. Earlier that day on the 5:30 pm Amtrak train from Union Station to Santa Ana, we rendezvoused on an upper-tier car. Tall boys of Arrogant Bastard and marijuana vape pens circulated before the train even pulled out of the station. Besides the aforementioned members, Alexander the Steak and Beef Erikson were in attendance as was a special guest, Desmin Borges — a fantastic actor a couple of the guys work with on FX’s You’re The Worst — who tonight is playing arguably his most challenging role as Quichetopher Columbus.
The Culineers take turns planning the group’s monthly dinners and tonight’s voyage is courtesy of Prawns de Leon who is under serious pressure after a much ball-busted about previous venture where the menu’s most adventurous item was pork sliders.
Upon arrival in Santa Ana, it’s discovered that Prawn’s first destination (Carnitas Uruapan for, among other thing, eyeball tacos) has closed early. Deprived of appetizers, we walked from the train station towards downtown, stumbling across a food truck (Carcharita taco truck) and ordering a couple rounds of delicious street tacos (notable highlight — the tripas tacos with cactus) while we waited for Prawn’s new Tinder girlfriend to pick up and chauffeur us to the nearest bar (Native Son) to fortify our nerves for the evening’s main event.
Which brings us to the balut — seven sizable eggs waiting in front of us like presents we’re unsure we want to unwrap. The waitress instructs us to crack the top of the shell just gently enough to allow us to drink the hot embryonic fluid inside as an aperitif to the meaty goodness to follow.
Emboldened with soju, Veal thrusts his spoon into the little sunroof he’s chipped in the egg and excavates a slick grey and pink mass which looks more like something you’d see on an outraged Christian’s picket sign than a menu. It’s clearly a baby duckling — there’s even a stray feather wet and stuck to it. In a merciful nod towards edibility, a partial coating of dry yellow egg is molded to it. It’s gigantic — comically big for a mere table spoon; it’s unfathomable how it was all packed into that shell and even more so how it will all fit into his mouth. But Veal isn’t in an introspective mood; he shovels, then crams, the embryo into his mouth. His wet squishy chewing sounds are somehow audible above our own chatter and after giving his mandibles a lengthy workout, he swallows and pronounces the dish — “pretty good.”
The rest of us stop Instagramming long enough to follow suit. It does taste simultaneously like chicken and egg. It’s both wet and dry and hard to sever into workable bites. Prawns notes something crackling in his mouthful — his balut was clearly more developed and he’s contending with some beak.
I like it as much as I can like anything I never want to eat again. For some of the group it’s a challenging process and they have to be prodded along with some schoolyard taunting, but eventually we all finish our eggs just in time to field the next rush of dishes and platters shuttled out to us.
Juicy pig trotters, frog’s legs, a mountain of crawfish, cockles in coconut sauce and lemon grass, blood clams, alligator cutlets, giant periwinkles with meat we grow light-headed sucking straight from the shell.
Dry shrimp peppered with something I’m told is called ‘100 year old egg’ appears. The egg is black and gelatinous (due to how it’s preserved in ash for months before serving — the alkaline providing its color and texture) and I find myself eating it with a disproportionate number of dried shrimp to be able to enjoy it. An enormous ribeye steak too big for the plate is dropped off and serves as a welcome respite from so much culinary exoticism.
We’ve yet to even scratch the surface of Cafe Artist’s wide-ranging laminated menu when Beef Erikson disappears under the table. Thankfully, his wet retching is drowned out by the din of the raucous patio crowd. We all tuck our shoes under our chairs to avoid any splatter. Check, please! It’s time for the next spot.
The evening moves on to more drinks on the 80’s dance floor at the Copper Door, followed by a blurry train ride in the bar car back to LA. Culineers begin to peel off from there — Irish-goodbying zombie-like into the night. There are three of us still upright enough for Moscow mules at The Love Song bar. Prawns de Leon is enjoying a victory lap for a multi-course evening already being celebrated on social media as a success. We hear music and stumble into the adjoining Regent Theater to catch the last couple encores of Latino rockabilly from the electric Luis and the Wild Fires.
Someone gets the brilliant idea to order a cheese pie from neighboring Prufrock pizza. My recollection, compromised at best, is the pizza was excellent. Prawns is hatching a plan to hit an after-hours club in the warehouse district but he needs to the bartender’s help charging his phone.Convinced that nothing ahead at this late hour will challenge the balut as the evening’s centerpiece, I call it a night and still holding a hot slice, I fall into the nearest uber.