My plate’s eyes are wide open and her voice is screaming “COMFORT.” Deep fried tilapia with steamed rice reminds me of my childhood. I couldn’t wait for this simple dish to be served so I can devour it, with my mouth, my eyes, and my memories.
I didn’t intend to order this dish at Phuong Trang. I didn’t even see it on their website menu, when I did my usual restaurant research before deciding where to have dinner this past Sunday night. Phuong Tran serves Vietnamese food, which is what I wanted to eat prior to watching the Miss Saigon musical – our dinner and a show night. (I like to match the dinner theme with the event of the night.) I perused their extensive menu a number of times, planning to try dishes typical of Vietnamese food – hot pots, pho, rice vermicelli, anything with lemongrass. But immediately when I saw they offered whole fried tilapia (with an extra 15-minute wait), my growling stomach wanted nothing else.
We checked our phones to make sure we had the extra time before the show, and yes we did – we’d have to skip dessert this dinner. And as we waited, I silently and hungrily waited by wading through email and social media accounts.
My partner Richard got his meal first, a delicious seafood fried rice – he decided on a basic dish because there were so many choices, he couldn’t decide. As I eye his dish, Richard asks me if I want some…well, just a little bit. Very good and fresh tasting, but I didn’t want to eat too much, even though I was starving at that point.
“Fish, fish, fish,” my stomach was chanting.
Finally, my whole fish was served – including the head. And hot! Straight from the deep fryer to the plate and into my mouth. Who cares if the crispy skin and white meat was steaming, it seemed like I was waiting for hours! Since we were in a restaurant, I tried to daintily remove the meat with my knife and fork, but after a few morsels flew onto the table (five second rule), I thought forget it – I’m using my hands to grab the fish. I did hold back from going all native, and used my fork to get the right proportion of fish and rice for each bite. I was in food heaven, thinking about my childhood plates.
The dish may seem to look plain and bland, but to me it was a delicacy. As a kid, my Filipino parents would occasionally make fried tilapia for weekend dinners or when guests were invited over. Sometimes served on banana leaves, and always with lots of steamed white rice. We ate tilapia before it became a food thing.
I have never fried fish for myself, but I always smile when my parents prepare it for me and my family. I have been known to drive over to 99 Ranch and have them deep fry tilapia for me, but that’s as close as I’ve gotten. It’s not the same as being freshly prepared for me by my parents, and then eaten as soon as it’s out of the fryer with my rice. Even better when I’m eating with my hands. But now I know I can get my whole fried tilapia at Phuong Trang. And that makes me smile. Because as we say, happy tummy, happy life. This dish represents my comforting childhood and satisfies my eater needs. My plate of simple whole fried tilapia speaks for itself, and asks…when are we coming back?
4170 Convoy Street
San Diego, CA 92111
Notes: Phuong Trang’s menu is very extensive, so take your time in deciding what to order. Prices are very reasonable, our dinner for two was less than $30, including tip. I was first exposed to Phuong Trang by my friend Rosey, who would order trays of food from the restaurant for workplace and personal gatherings. We especially enjoy eating the Glazed Chicken Wings with their house special sauce.