Much of a restaurant’s popularity in this age of Yelp depends on fanatic online reviews and subsequent adoration of particular dishes. Sometimes these dishes actually reflect the essence of a restaurant’s identity, while other times they are simply too bold and nutty to ignore. In Berkeleyside Nosh’s regular “To Die For” column, Kate Williams looks at East Bay’s popular restaurants through the lens of a single, sought-after dish. Is the food is a bunch of hype, or is is in fact “to die for?”
Da Nang’s bright red and yellow exterior is an attention hog. Even on a stretch of San Pablo Avenue replete with Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian restaurants, it stands out. Places like White Lotus and Lao-Thai Kitchen seem to blend in to their surroundings with understated signs and quiet storefronts. On the other hand, Da Nang screams out to passers-by: “Eat here now.”
So eat at Da Nang we will. Once through the front door, Da Nang is more understated. Clean tables are adorned only with paper napkins, industrial silverware, and bottles of Sriracha. There are a few plants and a few pictures, but it is clear that inside Da Nang the food is the real attention grabber.
Da Nang offers both Thai and Vietnamese food on its menu, but the Thai dishes tend to dominate. Not surprisingly, staples like tom ka soup, pad thai, and papaya salad are all popular choices. But it’s possible to get decent to good versions of each of these dishes at any number of the Thai spots on the block. The real reason to eat at Da Nang is to try a simple braised pork dish: kao kha moo (listed as ka moo on Da Nang’s menu). It’s a common dish in Thailand, but rarely seen on American menus.
Evocative of Chinese-style red braised dishes, kao kha moo is slightly sweet and anise-y, with a subtly aromatic broth perfect for drizzling over a bed of steamed rice. A bed of Chinese broccoli sits below the pork, offering bites of vegetal bitterness to contrast with the rich pork. Cilantro leaves offer a bit more freshness, and spicy Vietnamese nuoc cham will add heat if desired.
Most long-cooked pork served stateside is a shoulder or belly cut; both are worthy choices for a braise, but their textures (stringy shoulder and chewy belly) are expected and, frankly, a little boring at this point. Instead of kowtowing to these two more conventional choices, Da Nang sticks with the traditional Thai choice of pork leg. Braising with a cut so rife with skin, bones, and connective tissue imparts a depth of rich, porcine flavor to both the meat and the jus. The additional fat from the pork skin keeps the meat supremely moist and so tender the meat can be cut with a spoon. And, while Da Nang’s cooks take the meat off the bone before serving, they kindly leave this wondrous skin on the meat. Don’t disregard this gift or push it to the side of the plate; a bite with both pork meat and skin, dragged through the fragrant sauce is rustic Thai cooking at its best.
A meal at any Southeast Asian restaurant is not complete with just one dish. To accompany the kao kha moo, you’ll want rice, of course (Da Nang offers fluffy brown and jasmine, as well as too-sticky sticky rice). Pumpkin curry, a thick red curry full of skin-on kabocha squash, is miles above the typical sweet mush served at most Americanized Thai restaurants. Ka Nar Pla Kem, stir-fried Chinese broccoli with pungent salted fish (think anchovies on steroids) is also an excellent addition. The little bites of funky fish are a perfect foil to the bitter green. To go in an entirely different direction, the steaming bowls of Kao Soi are also particularly appealing — limey, fishy coconut curry broth and hand-cut egg noodles make for a more exotic noodle dish than the more typical bowl of pho.
Yet there are many other worthy choices on Da Nang’s extensive menu. Many plate combinations are merit examination, but there’s one dish to never leave off the list: kao kha moo.
Restaurant: Da Nang Krungthep Thai Cuisine (905 San Pablo Ave, Albany) (510) 524-6837
Dish: Kao Kha Moo, a fragrant and magnificently tender braised pork leg served with its delightfully chewy skin intact upon a bed of Chinese broccoli and sweet anise broth.
Cost: $8.95 (with rice) or $10.95 (platter). No wait for a table, but you may wait to pay your check.
Other dishes of note: Pumpkin Curry, Kao Soi (coconut milk noodle soup), Ka Nar Pla Kem (Chinese broccoli with salted fish)
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.