Red Boat fish sauce. Everybody’s talking about it—from French food expert Patricia Wells, who says she can’t do without it, to Vietnamese food maven Andrea Nguyen, to me and Dee Nguyen, chef-owner of definition-defying, wildly popular Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills.
Fish sauce, nuoc mam, weaves a defining, essential thread through Viet cuisine, lending deep umami to spring-roll dipping sauce and subtle, haunting aroma to pho broth. There are hundreds of different bottles on the shelf at any Vietnamese supermarket, so when a particular name started cropping up repeatedly in the foodosphere I took note: Red Boat, made only with anchovies and salt. These are the basic elements of any fish sauce, though other bottles feature much longer ingredient lists. I looked for it at my habitual 99 Ranch, on Jeffrey in Irvine, but no dice.
Serendipitously, chef Nguyen was on the case. Classically trained, a veteran of the Ritz-Carlton Dana Point and owner of a restaurant that approaches local-institution status, he converses knowledgeably about European technique and Vietnamese traditional dishes, while remaining quite self-effacing.
Nguyen not only clued me in to where I could buy Red Boat, he also advised that the similarly square bottles next to it on the shelf are the same, excepting one important aspect: price. At ABC Supermarket in Westminster, Red Boat was $6.49 and another that Dee recommended, Hai Ngu, was just $3.99. Place of manufacture and ingredients were identical; I bought both. An informal taste test at home came down to splitting hairs—we thought maybe the Red Boat is a little saltier and the Hai Ngu a bit more complex, but both are delicious umami bombs and assets to any pantry.
And the premium fish sauce category continues to grow. While shopping in Little Saigon this week, Dee posted photos of two additional fish sauces on my Facebook page for consideration. I foresee more taste testing in my future.