Cheap Eats: Deep-Fried Salad At Rangoon

For last month’s issue of Philly Mag I reviewed Fette Sau. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would—but that surprise wasn’t entirely a pleasant one. As it turns out, there’s a downside to double-checking just how good that BBQ short rib was (and the pork belly, and the brisket, and the pulled pork…), and then cross-checking them against the offerings at Blue Belly, Bubba’s, and Percy Street: Meat exhaustion.

An enlightened person would have simply fasted between these missions. I am no such person. Unless you count making it all the way to noon before eating lunch, I don’t fast. And usually the impure thoughts start hitting me around 10:30am.

In other words, salads were going to be the only way out.

And there’s no better place to eat salads than Rangoon, on 9th Street between Arch and Cherry.

I actually had a second reason to revisit this place for the first time since a forgettable lunch seven or eight years ago. I’d recently researched gin thoke, spring ginger salad, pretty exhaustively in an attempt to make my own.

Mine came out splendidly, largely on account of some beautiful young ginger from a farmer friend in Georgia—but I had nothing to judge it against, and that nagged me.

I wasn’t surprised to find Rangoon’s version a little funkier than mine (more fish sauce), but in most other ways it was more restrained. The restaurant’s version was like the granddaddy of all cole slaws: shredded cabbage and ginger showered with peanuts, deep-fried split peas and shallots, sesame seeds, dried shrimp and tomatoes. But mine had been the great-grandaddy, thanks to all that stuff plus baked chickpeas and deep-friend lentils. (First rule of Southeast Asian salads: the more crunchies, the better.) My friend’s ginger also gave me an unfair advantage.

Luckily, I did not stop there. Rangoon offers 17 different salads. Some belong to that same shredded-cabbage family—like the Asian tea leaf salad, which essentially swaps out the ginger for aromatic and slightly bitter edible tea leaves–but the more salads I ate here, the more amazed I was by the variety. One took tamarind sauce and lime leaves to cubes of homemade tofu that were haunted by a foreign flavor I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but liked a lot. Tamarind showed up again in a lukewarm rice-ball salad, which, with its mixture of carrots, dried shrimp, cabbage and potatoes, played like the mild-mannered offspring of paella and vinegar-splashed fried rice. The Eastern Noodle Salad was totally different—glass noodles with a pork-sesame-soy profile—and delicious (if hard to share, what with the noodles’ crazy length and elasticity).

I’d recommend any of these—including the spring ginger salad. (After all, $7 for that plate probably beats spending half a day prepping all the components yourself.) But one salad at Rangoon knocked my socks off like no other mess of greens I can remember.

Remember these words: crispy watercress salad. Write them down on your hand if you have to.

The dressing is a bracing cocktail of lime juice, basil, mint and serious chile pepper. It’s watery enough to drink, and just sweet enough for you to want to. But the watercress itself was the revelation. Flawless green fronds had been battered—lightly, barely—with rice flour, and then flash-fried. They could hardly have spent five seconds in the oil because inside their batter jackets, the watercress was still fresh, raw, and watercrisp. But each leaf was also sealed in an impossibly delicate, translucent shell that delivered another level of crispiness. A truly wondrous surprise.

And, as it turns out, there’s an amazing upside to meat exhaustion: deep-fried salad.

112 N. 9th Street
(215) 829-8939