South Bay Viet Chowdown report (long)
- Alice Ringer
On Saturday 12/6, six of us met in San Jose for an adventure in Vietnamese "street food" cuisine. Hao was our expert and yours truly was the co-organizer. I was just 5 minutes late but was the last arrival (yes, I shouldve known). This report summarizes the things we ate & reviewed. I hope others will chime in, and also report the findings after I had to depart unexpectedly early.
We started at Bun Bo Hue #1 on Senter Road, a small café with about 15 tables. Hao selected this destination for us because it specializes in Central Vietnamese food, and because it is the only one, or one of few places, that serves various banh (appetizers or small cakes, like dim sum) made from scratch and steamed to order.
The first dish, Banh Beo, are disks of steamed rice flour, topped with fluffly ground shrimp and green onion, served with nuoc cham (fish sauce, water, sugar, hot pepper, and lemon/lime/vinegar) to be poured over the banh beo. Tiny cubes of very crunchy chicharones accompany this dish here. At BBH#1, banh beo is served individually in something like a large dipping bowl, 4 bowls per order (other places usually plate several silver-dollar sized disks onto one plate). Hao and I (the 2 native borns) thought the rice flour was just right, but the nuoc cham too weak. I noticed the lack of heat in the nuoc cham (it had sliced jalapenos instead of minced thai bird chiles), and the lack of yellow mung bean powder on the banh beo (maybe I grew up on a different style of banh beo). The others really liked this dish. Overall grade: A-
The second dish, Banh Ram It, is a two-parter: on top is a small ball of very sticky rice flour filled with small cubes of pork meat, and below is a fried shrimp fritter. You eat a bit of both in the same bite. We all loved the contrast in textures (snappy crunch and chewy sticky goodness). Overall grade: A
Next was a noodle dish, Mi Quang. This dish has yellow rice noodles (yellow is from turmeric when the noodles are boiled), topped with a mind-boggling assortment of stuff: shrimp, sliced pork, Vietnamese pork bologna, shrimp, thin sliced onion, thin shredded red & green cabbage, bean sprouts, chopped mint, peanuts & fried shallots, with a dark (chicken?) broth that is just enough to make the dish wet but not swimming in broth. Normally served with puffed shrimp crackers but here it was served with puffed black sesame seed rice cracker. This was Catherine Gs favorite (or maybe her fave so far). I thought it was good but did not have strong enough shrimp flavor and could use more herbs. Im still searching for Mi Quang to beat the place a grand uncle once took me, some place near 101 & Tully that I cant remember. Hao said her moms specialty dish is Mi Quang so wherever she orders it, its tough to beat her moms. Overall grade: B+
After a bit of wondering if they had forgotten the rest of our order, Hao confirmed with the kitchen & wait staff that it was still coming (thank goodness we had a native born speaker with us).
Next was Banh Bot Loc, small cakes of tapioca flour which are glutinous and see through when steamed, with one slice of pork and one boiled shrimp inside. This one got mixed reviews: Hao and I thought the chewy but resilient texture of the tapioca flour was just right (helped by the fact that it was freshly steamed) but the filling too bland. Normally you dont need any fish sauce or nuoc cham for these but at BBH#1 they needed something. Hao gave it a C, I gave it a B, others liked it. They get extra points for being the only place I know that steams it to order.
Last was Banh Nam, steamed flat rectangular packets of banana leaf, inside is a rice flour base with ground shrimp and ground pork pressed into the base. You eat this with nuoc cham poured over. Again, it got mixed reviews. Hao gave it a C, Han gave it an A. With the too-weak nuoc cham being a key part of this dish, I gave it a B. But it gets extra points for having a high shrimp to rice flour ratio.
The total including tax & tip was a mere $6.25 per person (no drinks, only tea).
For our next destination, we drove a few miles to Pho Ga An Nam, a small café on Story Road btw Senter and McLaughlin whose specialty is Pho Ga (chicken pho) and free-range chicken. It was packed with Vietnamese lunch-goers. The place has an almost kitschy décor: a bamboo roof with some fake chickens over the counter, bamboo saloon doors to the restrooms, and a wallpaper border of roosters on the white walls. We split the following dishes:
#7 Pho Ga Dac Biet or house specialty pho ga, it comes with chicken thigh chopped across the leg bone, chicken gizzard, and (Derek are you listening?) unborn young eggs. We noticed the sweetness of the broth (like sweet from meat flavor, not sweet from sugar). I thought the broth was fragrant (warning: adding too much sriracha & lime like I did really detracts from the flavor). I like that at Pho An Nam, you can choose which cuts of chicken to go in your pho (other pho places usually have only 1 kind of pho ga). I forgot to ask the group for an overall grade, but others seemed to like it. My grade: A-
#30 Mien Ga Thit cellophane noodles with shredded chicken (breast meat), and chicken liver. This dish is traditionally tasting strong of black pepper, and we really noticed that here. The broth did not seem the same as the pho (not as sweet). I thought it was good but not memorable. My grade: B+
#11 Com Ga Boiled chicken and rice cooked in chicken broth; served with a dipping sauce of nuoc cham and minced ginger, and pickled cabbage that looks like kim chi. I really liked the ginger nuoc cham, but thought the pickled cabbage was too sweet. I really enjoyed the taste and tenderness of the chicken meat. Hao said it was boiled but in other places the boiled chicken is usually tasteless to me. I also thought the rice was perfectly cooked (grains are separate but slightly chewy, and tasting of chicken). My grade: A-
Total at Pho Ga An Nam including 2 (or was it 1?) iced coffees was a paltry $5.50 per person. The group moved on to another destination for sweet drinks/dessert after I had to leave.
Overall I really liked being able to order vietnamese banh dishes made and steamed to order at BBH#1, but was disappointed that a place that caters to native vietnamese would have weak nuoc cham. And I will definitely go back to Pho Ga An Nam. I really enjoyed my first Chowdown event and loved meeting everyone and sharing opinions on food. I want to thank Hao for being the technical expert and designated Vietnamese speaker for our group, and for all the others for coming.
Oh, and I took digital pictures, but I dont have a place to host them to allow posting the pics here. Maybe I will upload them to Yahoo Photos and put a link to my Yahoo Photo Album here.
It was a great chowdown and we get to taste many many different things. Some I would never had known if not for the Viet hound with us (Hao). Thanks both for organizing this and hope that you will do so again.
I do not remember the names of the dishes and all of them were very good IMO. I thought the chicken rice was excellent but if they were boneless, that would be stellar. Another good chicken rice was at the Thai temple in Fremont. The sauce makes it really good.
Banh Beo is excellent IMO and I could down the whole order if I want to but I got to reserve space for the next things to come. The fine shrimp crumbles were very flavorful. Mmmm..mmm
At our 3rd stop, the place had tofu for like 6 pcs/$1 and they were very good. One had lemongrass flavor and quite fragrant and tasty especially when refried at home/heated. The other had onion flavor and those are excellent as well. For desserts, the drinks with various ingredients were just delicious and refreshing. I had a gelatinous rectangular (made of flour) thingy that had some bananas inside and was very good as well.
re: Han Lukito
Thanks to Alice for organizing the very first chowdown she attended! Great job!
And thanks to Hao, for her expertise and her critical discernment. Otherwise we would still be trying to separate the wheat from the chaff of the hundreds of Vietnamese food purveyors in east San Jose.
The first stop was really special. The menu is simple and consists of a listing of the Vietnamese names of the dishes and the prices. No descriptions and not a word of English. I never would have known what to order (or in a couple of cases, how to eat it). My favorite was the Bahn Ram It -- I loved the contrast between the crisp fried fritter on the bottom and the mochi-like rice ball on the top.
Can something be too chicken-y? If so, the food at Pho Ga An Nam is. I actually didn't like the pho ga here as well as at Turtle Tower, although perhaps if I had been hungrier the richness of it would have appealed to me more. Not that I didn't think it was excellent, especially the pho ga, which caused me to remark that I'd never thought of chicken as "sweet" before. Alice is right: you really need to taste the food here carefully before you add anything, or you'll end up detracting from the pure chicken flavor.
At the next stop I also bought some of the fried tofu to take to a vegetarian potluck that night. My friends scarfed it down, along with something I didn't get the name of but dubbed "Vietnamese hush puppies" (spicy nuggets of deep-fried cassava). Hao had warned these were addictive, and she was right. I liked the lemongrass version of the fried tofu better than the onion. At $8 for 24 pieces of tofu and 24 "hush puppies" (both were 6/doller) I met my potluck obligations with minimal effort at a bargain price!
re: Ruth Lafler
I agree with Hao, Ruth and Han's comments; it was great fun to be able to sample goodies I've never seen or heard of before! The Banh Beo was addictive; it was a challenge to keep from just scarfing them all down! We knew we had more things coming so restraint was in order. I liked the Mi Quang a lot; the flavor of the fresh herbs is so delicious! The rice cracker with black sesame seeds were especially interesting to me. I bought this product several months ago but couldn't find out what to do with it (how to make them puff up; deep fry them or what? Hao told me to just put them in the microwave until they puff up. I tried it when I got home and it really is cool! Now I have a new crunchy goodie to serve that's really unique!) The drinks/desserts we had at the second stop made me happy because they pretty much all had coconut milk in them and most had tapioca in one form or another; 2 of my favorite things. I ordered one that inlcuded lotus seeds, red dates (jujubes), thin strands of seaweed and a type of white fungus that I've seen in Chinese dessert soups that adds an interesting crunch. I think we each ordered a different type and we all tasted each others choices. This little shop also sells fresh tropical fruits in season; last Spring I found fresh rambutans; something I had only had canned previously. They were a treat! At this time of the year all I saw were some pomelos and longans (don't knkow if they had been frozen or not). After we sat around and slurped up these goodies, we went off to the next stop, Hong-Van Bakery, 2559 S. King Rd., #11. They specialize in French pastries, especially durian cream puffs! Lots of interesting cakes with fillings like mango and a lovely Buche de Noel! I was stuffed at this point. Many thanks to Alice and Hao; I hope you have time to put together another excursion for us!
perhaps the place near 101 and tully you can't recall is Bun Bo Hue Dong Ba. they've got a great Mi Quang and plenty of a la minute banh.
i would like to add my thank you to alice for organizing a terrific chowdown. i had a lot of fun sharing some of my favorite vietnamese eateries with everyone.
the third stop was at hien khanh, a place known for it's "che" (vietnamese dessert) but from the comments, the tofu made a bigger impression. :) this is my notes for the different che.
che chui (coconut milk with banana and tapioca)
che khoai mon (coconut milk with tara root in sticky rice)
che ba ba (coconut mild with lotus seed, seaweed, mung bean paste, and tapioca)
che thai lan (sweet milk with agar agar and logan)
che ba mau (han, what did you all put in here? =) )
there are more choices here but by this stop, everyone was reaching their limits.
the last stop was at hong van bakery. the best thing here is the durrant cream puff. i was impressed that everyone tried one. ;) they also carry a lot of imported french food product such as maggie, butter, and cookies.
All the che were good -- similar yet different enough it was hard to pick a favorite. The most different was the che thai lan, which was based on sweetened milk, not coconut milk. Some people liked this better, some not as well.
The durian cream puff just proved to me that I don't like durian, but then I don't like the funky quality of a lot of tropical fruits.
Thanks again, Hao! It was great to be with someone who could look at the array of eateries and know which ones to dismiss with a "don't bother" or "not good."
I think we need many more of these expeditions, though, before we can say we have truly checked out all there is to offer -- we never did get to the food court in the Lion mall!