To anyone who has pulled back the protective wrapper on a rubbery Slim Jim after a late-night run to the convenience store, the 21 plastic bins inside the Phu Quy Deli Delight at the Eden Center in Falls Church must seem as alien as fermented fish sauce to an A.1. man.
Each of those 21 bins is filled with jerky made by Vua Kho Bo, a California-based dried snack company whose name translates into, more or less, the “king of beef jerky.” There are pieces of dehydrated beef flavored with chili flakes, curry powder, lemon grass, sugar, black pepper, orange juice and barbecue seasonings. There are jerkys cut into cubes, sliced into strips or even shredded and laced with cashews. One might be the burnt-orange color of leaves in fall, another could be as crimson as ripe September apples. Some are as dry as cinnamon sticks, others as chewy and sticky as candied bacon. One or two are downright fuzzy, as if someone made jerky out of Fozzie Bear.
All of them, collectively, fall under the deliciously addictive, difficult-to-define category of Vietnamese jerky. I say “difficult to define” because the more I learn about the (generally unsmoked) Vietnamese subset of the jerky industry, the less I seem to understand it. Charles Phan, the James Beard Award-decorated chef and owner of the Slanted Door in San Francisco, theorizes that the chewy cured beef has its origins in China, whose influence has been felt on Vietnam for centuries. Phan even has firsthand evidence: His father, who fled Communist China for Vietnam in the early 1950s, used to make his own jerky.
“He wasn’t very good,” Phan recalls. “He didn’t make money making beef jerky.”
Based on his own observations, Phan says the jerky found in Vietnam is, by and large, produced by families of Chinese origin and is “so close to the stuff I’ve seen in Hong Kong.” Interestingly enough, Vietnam native Kim Nguyen, proprietor of Phu Quy, tells me the owners of Vua Kho Bo are Taiwanese, though the company is producing snacks largely for a Vietnamese market. Or, perhaps more accurately, for the Vietnamese American market, because many of Vua Kho Bo’s products would probably never be found in Vietnam and tend to downplay the heat compared with the jerky back in Nguyen’s home country.
“In Vietnam, ours is a little bit spicier and not as sweet as Chinese and Hong Kong” jerky, says Nguyen. “We like fish sauce. They like soy sauce. The soy sauce is a little bit sweeter.”
The takeaway here, for me at least, is that the line between the different jerkys found in Asia is perhaps more malleable and less rigidly nationalistic than for other foodstuffs. Frankly, I’ll leave that discussion to food anthropologists with more time on their hands. I prefer the simple pleasures of sampling widely at Phu Quy, where Nguyen will ply you with as many samples as your palate can handle. This is a smart business practice. Her jerky is not cheap, which may explain why the deli’s name roughly translates into “wealthy” and “successful,” because you need to be one or both to shop here regularly.
Her “French beef jerky,” a moist and spicy variety prepared with flank steak, runs $27 a pound. Her “crispy curry beef jerky,” desiccated strips of surprisingly sweet meat, are even pricier at $29.50. But most of the jerky at Phu Quy is in the $23 range, such as the tantalizing barbecue-like black pepper beef jerky or the hot fruit flavored beef jerky, a mild, sweet variety made for cutting into strips and sprinkling over the iconic Vietnamese green papaya salad.
Over at Present restaurant in Falls Church, a short drive from the Eden Center, chef Luong Tran prepares two kinds of house-made jerky for his green papaya salad, which is no ordinary appetizer. It’s modernist art on a plate, a tangle of shaved, pale-green curls of papaya accented with colorful twists of maroon beef jerky and blackened beef-liver jerky, all sprinkled with a soy-based dressing infused with more of the liver jerky flavor. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the two jerkys make the salad, providing chewiness, yes, but also sweetness and heat and an ironlike blast of liver to contrast with those crunchy, neutral strands of papaya.
Though perfect as a role player in a green papaya salad, jerky’s true calling comes as a solo act: a hand-held snack, whether over a few beers at the bar or as a mid-afternoon repast between classes for students. “With the [hot] temperatures in Vietnam, you can use it any time,” says Binh Nguyen, owner of Present. “It’s a nice dry food that you can pack. It doesn’t go bad.”
Kim Nguyen of Phu Quy (no relation to Binh) says men — yes, it’s almost always men — will drop by her store and pick up a pound or so of jerky before wandering over to one of the watering holes buried deep within the Eden Center. It may seem an atypical treat to accompany their beer, at least to Americans accustomed to their salty snacks of peanuts, pretzels and popcorn. But Kim Nguyen equates jerky, at least the spicier ones, to Buffalo wings. It’s the heat that drives a drinker’s lust (and a bar manager’s nodding approval to let customers bring the food inside).
“It makes you drink more,” Kim says.
That, in part, is what drives my current interest in Vietnamese jerky. (Not the inducement to drown myself in suds, but as a recurring option in my own snack rotation during this, the height of the sports-watching season.) Sure, I could just drive over to Phu Quy and purchase a couple of pounds of jerky, but between the price, the fuel and the stress of navigating through Washington’s soul-crushing traffic, I’d prefer to make my own at home.
There are certainly plenty of recipes for Asian-style jerky at your fingertips, many buried deep in the bowels of the Internet. But two new cookbooks offer more home-style recipes to test your skill at jerky-making. Canadian food writer Naomi Duguid has included one in her latest effort, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor” (Artisan), suggesting you even try your hand at air-drying the spice-rubbed meat for a few days. The one I tested was tucked into Phan’s debut cookbook, “Vietnamese Home Cooking” (Ten Speed Press).
Phan’s version of beef jerky calls for, essentially, braising top round in a soy-water-scallions mixture before cooling the meat, slicing it and coating the thin slices in a cooking liquid comprising fish sauce, water, soy sauce, honey, garlic, roasted chili paste, Thai chili peppers and crushed red pepper flakes. Despite the heavy presence of peppers, the resulting slices are decidedly savory and umami-rich, not spicy. Nor are they dehydrated and satisfyingly chewy. They remind me more of Korean bulgogi than Vietnamese jerky. Still, they are, without question, succulent and delicious.
Am I disappointed with Phan’s interpretation? On some striving-for-authenticity level, sure, but then the chef tells me he prefers to taste the beef in his jerky, not drown the meat under heat, aromatics and sugar. He also mentions that his jerky perfectly complements his green papaya salad recipe, which comes with a “very spicy” dressing. He seems to be implying that I should not judge his chef-driven jerky in the context of those commercial strips available here in the States.
I’ll have to ponder that as I nibble on my pound of Vietnamese jerky from Phu Quy.
Phu Quy Deli Delight 6799 Wilson Blvd. No. 7, Falls Church. 703-536-6106. Song Que 6769 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church. 703-536-7900. Present 6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 703-531-1881.