Thit heo nuong xa—grilled pork chops—are a staple in Vietnamese restaurants. But they're so easy to make that there's no reason they shouldn't be a staple at home, too, especially during grilling season. Kenji has written about this type of pork chop before, but whereas he serves his over hot rice, we often go for another popular presentation: serving the chops with cold rice noodles. The noodles make it the ultimate refreshing summer dish, almost a noodle salad of sorts. Between the sizzling charred chops, the chilled rice noodles, plenty of fresh and quick-pickled vegetables, and the nuoc cham, a bracing savory-tart dressing, it's everything you want on a hot day.
The key to this dish is a long marinade using a few ingredients at the heart of the Vietnamese pantry. That includes lemongrass, a good dose of garlic, and a mix of fish sauce and sugar (palm sugar is traditional, but light brown works just fine).
We'll be honest: We often take the easiest route with the marinade by puréeing the ingredients in a food processor. But we feel compelled to at least point out that this is one of those times where a mortar and pestle and some elbow grease will deliver even better results. The difference between crushing the aromatics, which breaks open more cells, and chopping them, which cuts them into little bits and ruptures fewer cells, is noticeable. So, take your pick.
As for the meat, we tested our two favorite cuts of pork for this recipe: boneless country-style ribs (cut into thin strips) and thin-cut pork chops (preferably from the fattier blade end). Both have plenty of marbling, which is important to keep them from drying out on the grill. Both cuts performed really well, so the choice is, once again, up to you. The ribs were extremely tender and juicy, though the chops had a bit more flavor, and a bone to gnaw on.
Because these cuts are so thin, there's a definite risk of overcooking, especially if you use charcoal and aren't practiced at regulating its temperature. You want high heat for this. A grill that isn't hot enough will take longer to cook the chops, which could result in a tough piece of meat. Nobody wants that. Luckily, there's a backup plan.
The sugar in the marinade helps a good char develop on the chops quickly, but we still like a little extra insurance. In this case, we turn to the same technique we use in our recipe for Stir-Fried Lo Mein Noodles With Pork and Vegetables: a quick soak in a baking soda solution. Thanks to the alkalizing effects of the baking soda (plus the moisture-retaining effects of salt from fish sauce and soy sauce in the marinade), the pork stays juicy and tender, even as it chars and crisps on its exterior.
Note that this won't work for bigger cuts, such as thick-cut pork chops or a roast, because it only affects the surface area of the meat. The baking soda needs only 15 minutes to work on the meat (though it won't do any harm if left longer), after which the pork should be rinsed and placed in the marinade bag for at least 30 minutes. Marinating for longer will give the salt more time to dissolve the pork's muscle proteins, helping it retain moisture later.
As we mentioned above, thit heo nuong xa is often simply served with rice, as Kenji does in his recipe. Our variation uses cold vermicelli noodles and an assortment of accoutrements, like fresh and pickled vegetables and herbs. The combination of hot-off-the-grill pork with cool noodles makes for a fantastic contrast. As a bonus, many brands of rice noodles don't even have to be cooked on the stovetop: Bring a kettle of water to a boil, and soak the noodles for five to eight minutes—noodles can vary quite a bit, so follow the package instructions, and check for doneness every few minutes—then drain and rinse with cold water.
As for the vegetables, we like fresh sliced cucumber and quick-pickled carrot and daikon. You can pickle them up to a week ahead of time, but you can also use them right away—they're cut into a thin julienne, so the pickling brine does its work very quickly. And if you're making your own nuoc cham, a sauce made from fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chilies, you can get that out of the way in advance, too.
Take your pick for the fresh herbs. We threw together a mix of our favorites, including mint, chives, cilantro, and a few leaves of shiso, called tía tô in Vietnamese. Basil can be a good choice, too.
Last but not least, a sprinkle of crushed peanuts adds another layer of texture. This dish has so much going for it that it'll seem like it came straight out of a professional restaurant kitchen. That's pretty sweet for a home-grilled meal.