A lot of expressions came to mind as we took our seats around the fresh, colorful array of nuts, fruits, herbs and vegetables that makes up the so-called House Salad at International Market.
For one: If it were a snake, it would have bitten me. In the more than 30 years that I've dined in the Belmont Boulevard landmark, I never knew this jewel-colored audience-participation feast was available for the ordering, right under my nose.
For another: I could have had a V8. In all my trips down the steaming buffet of curries, egg rolls, marinated skewers and rice dishes, I could have been filling my belly with a light medley of fresh vegetables, simple meats and seafood and zesty aromatics. I all but smacked myself on the forehead.
It's no wonder International Market owner Patti Myint doesn't advertise her house salad, which is essentially the fusion of lettuce wraps with an all-you-can-eat salad bar delivered to your table. With no fewer than 20 small bowls of finely chopped items accompanying the foundation ingredients of lettuce leaves and a selection of meat, it must be a pain in the neck to prepare. For that reason, the house salad is available only for groups of four or more and requires advance notice.
In our experience, we made a reservation for six at 7 p.m. on a Saturday evening. At that hour, the International Market's dinner hour was already winding down, but for us the evening was just getting started. Myint greeted us warmly and ushered us to the central six-top. No sooner had we taken our seats than small bowls began arriving, taking up virtually every square inch of the large table's surface. When the plates of ruffled lettuce leaves, deep bowls of ground chicken and sliced beef with ginger and a large bath of sweet chili sauce with peanuts arrived, Patti laid out the house rules:
Wash your hands.
Fill a lettuce leaf with one of every ingredient and top it with sweet chili sauce.
Put the whole packet in your mouth at once.
And with that, she left us to our work. We started out fast, using fingers and chopsticks to gather up morsels. Peanuts, pineapple, basil, mint, chili peppers, tiny lime sections, kaffir lime leaf, cucumber cubes, diced carrots, pickled ginger, cross-sections of long bean, celery, garlic, pickled garlic, cilantro, rice noodles, chicken, beef. (Patti also recommends ordering with steamed fish.) In our initial rounds, hunger trumped patience, and our greedy, fat fingers often clumsily grabbed more than one of an ingredient. We quickly understood why Patti said to put only a single piece of each topping into every wrap — not because she wanted us to perfect our fine-motor skills with Montessori-style exercises in perseverance, but because with 20-plus ingredients going into each leaf, the slightest excess yields an over-stuffed wrap that's too big to take in one bite and too ungainly to bite in half without losing all the fillings.
We also quickly learned that we would have to throw traditional dinner table etiquette to the wind if we were going to enjoy this meal to its fullest, so we agreed to stand up and reach across each other as necessary to access all the bowls of toppings.
Be warned. Dining in this style will make a spectacle of your table. People will wander by, looking quizzically at your sprawling constellation of bowls filed with candy-colored fruits and vegetables. They'll wonder why half of you are standing at any given moment. The natural response is to offer them a bite — and they will be tempted to accept. Don't worry, you're not going to run out of food, and if it looks like you might be running low on something, Patti will replenish it, because the magic of this meal is the combination of all the ingredients, which complement one another so perfectly. The crunch of the peanut needs the give of the cellophane noodle. The sweetness of the pineapple needs the sting of the garlic. The warmth of the ground meat sets off the coolness of the mint. Each bite is a compact anthology of flavors, textures and temperatures.
If curious passersby don't take you up on your offer, the least you can do is tell them what you ordered (Patti's House Salad) so they can experience this festive meal with their own group of friends. I learned about this off-the-menu delicacy from a friend whose mother-in-law told her about it years ago. And now that I'm in the know, I've started to encounter more and more people with special memories of Patti's House Salad. I feel like I've joined a secret society — which brings to mind another old expression: Membership has its privileges.
Patti's House Salad is available for groups of four or more and costs $25 to $30 per person, depending on the choice of meat or seafood.