In dark times, we take comfort in many things--copious amounts of alcohol, prescription or nonprescription drugs, suicidal ideation. I am here, broken in spirit but with appetite intact, to propose the comfort of beef.
Not just any beef--a big steak sounds unbearably red-state right now, and expensive considering that the New Depression's right around the corner, and terrible considering that you might have to look at fellow steakhouse patrons and know in your heart that they voted for That Man and thus you'll want to kill them. No, I'm talking about the full-body soul-hug that is the seven courses of beef at Tamarind Tree Provincial Vietnamese Restaurant.
Really. Fold up this newspaper now, call one or two friends who are unafraid of mad cow and are without excess scruples, and go to Asian Plaza, the strip mall on the northwest corner of 12th Avenue and Jackson Street. Go to the far reaches of its very utilitarian parking lot. Go within the brand-new Tamarind Tree. Be amazed, not for the first nor for the last time, by the ability of your city and its people to surprise you, to make life worth living; be amazed by the very unprovincial sleekness, the head-clearing tranquility. Sit beside the open fireplace if at all possible (you will want to live beside the open fireplace). Order the seven courses of beef ($18.95 for enough for a superhuman two or ordinary three). Yes, it's what everyone else is having that looks so amazing; it's what has reduced them to an awestruck, busy silence, the silence of blissful forgetting of everything but the beef.
They play fast and loose with the notion of courses here; it's more like a stampede, as very shortly your table is covered with upwards of a dozen elegant dishes of various sizes and surpassing symmetry. You will be drawn toward the flame under your tiny vat of boiling vinegar broth, into which you will thrust gorgeous, incarnadine slices of raw beef, rescuing them when they're cooked to your liking and rolling them up in lettuce leaves with fresh herbs, barely pickled julienned carrot, and super-skinny rice noodles. If you choose, you'll dip the whole thing immoderately in fish sauce. The activity occupies the mind and the hands; the food occupies the belly. The shredded beef salad--crispy jicama, pickled daikon and carrot, and, naturally, beef--looks like small-gauge confetti and comes with a huge stack of rice paper wrappers for you to soften in a bowl of hot water so, again, you can roll your own. All this is good, but not as good as the rectangular platter of grilled beef items. The plain (plain being relative here) grilled, marinated slices are meant to be rolled up with vegetables as well, but you may unceremoniously cram them down your gullet. Beef la-lot is like the most delicate, best possible version of a meatball wrapped in la-lot leaves, unspeakably savory and delicious. Then there's the fatty beef: grilled, marinated ground beef enfolded in a microscopically thin layer of fat, giving it an almost bacony, scream-and-jump-up-and-down goodness. But you're not done. A remarkably light steamed beef patty is like an aerated meatloaf with squiggles of rice noodle running through it; you eat it with a big, rippley rice cracker. Then there's a sludgy, peppery, ricey soup with undeniable curative, strengthening, and soothing properties.
Many non-bovine delights may be had at Tamarind Tree as well. The turmeric coconut rice cakes ($6.75), topped with whole shrimp rather than chopped as printed in the menu, achieve an amazing confectionery quality; pan-fried squid stuffed with ground pork, jicama, taro, and mushrooms ($6) is toothpicked into bite-sized morsels for ease of devouring. If you're straying from the beef path, you'd be wise to put yourself in your server's hands; they will not guide you wrong. Oh, and the house-made beverages--like sweet and salty apricot ($2), or fresh lime, condensed milk, and crushed ice ($2)--are intense and amazing, as is the rich, fresh kitchen-crafted roasted coconut ice cream ($4.25), even if you don't actually like coconut.
But none of this gets you the beef stupor--a reaction to the bounty and quality, a primal, happy fullness that precludes coherent thought and puts psychic pain at a comfortable distance. After seven courses of beef, the fearsome idiocy of the vast middle of the country retreats into meaninglessness. They have their president, but we have the beef.