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Fresno Visalia strengths - Hmong, Lao, Mex, Mien?

I was hoping yall could help me out. Just wondering what are the food specialties in this neck of the Central Valley, since I'll be taking the 8 hour roundtrip drive from San Francisco to Dinuba for work on Monday, and would like to get some good grub in hopefully.

I'm guessing that Hmong, maybe Mien, Lao, Khmer and Mexican food would be among the good stuff? Is this an accurate guess? Where could you find some good authentic, down home food? Are they on a secret menu at a "Thai" spot? Taquerias? Corner stores? I generally think some of the best eating tends to be in the hoods where there's at least some chances of getting shot, is this the case around Fresno, Visalia, etc?

But if I can't hook up some of this stuff maybe I'll just go look for a chili size! Also wondering, is there any place to buy fresh papalo leaves? Is there a Puebla/Poblana joint around? And does anyone know about a Mien (but maybe just Lao) snack that kind of looks like a big chunk of tofu, which you mix with a very spicy red sour liquid and is eaten cold/room temp? Used to eat this at a Mien corner store in Oakland but never got the name of it.

Thanks for any pointers, I appreciate it!

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  1. Welcome to Fresno!

    Yes, we have some excellent ethnic food here. PolarBear just posted his review of Thai Orchid. I've never been there, but check out his posting: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

    My personal current favorite for Lao and Thai cuisine is a hole in the wall called B&K Asian Kitchen. It's small and authentic, as far as I can tell, but I always ask them to spice up the dishes b/c they aren't hot enough for me. It's at 1276 North 1st Street in Fresno, off of the 41 at McKinley. It's in the hood.

    For Mexican, try Cuca's in the Tower District for excellent albondigas soup and Chris' Meat Market (thanks, glazebrookgirl) for tacos, asada, etc. Chris' is definitely in the hood; make sure to lock your car and hold onto your wallet. Lots of cops eat there, though. (Good sign, IMHO).

    Just click on my handle for reviews and more information about both places. PolarBear, glazebrookgirl and I have talked about these restaurants lately.


        1. I noticed a new place called Lao Paradise (iirc) had opened a couple of weeks ago on the east side of Blackstone between Gettysburg and Shaw Aves.

          1. The best Armenian I've found is IZI Deli on Chestnut and Butler. Their pilaf is tastier than any other I've had, and their hummus is outstanding. It's lighter, smoother, and creamier than most hummus, almost as if they whip air into it.
            If you get there at the right time (call ahead), they will have choreg hot out of the oven.

            1. By the way, the George's downtown serves good (but not great) Armenian food. Their "cold plate" of eggplant, yalanchi, feta and olives, hummus, and pita makes a nice lunch. Their soups are good, too. But don't bother with the George's on Blackstone. I was very disappointed. The two restauarants are not the same; George's downtown cooks in a Lebanese-Armenian style, but the one on Blackstone favors Russian-Armenian cooking.

              1. thanks for the tips, it's much much appreciated!

                alas, there were many things i wanted to get to, but was only in the area for 4 hours and had to miss alot of spots. however i got to hit some thangs that made this an especially good day.

                on the way to dinuba i stopped in fresno for gas and swung by ohanyan's for a basturma sandwich and soujouk sandwich; i was hoping to hit basturma/soujouk paydirt in fresno. i ate the sandwiches immediately in the parking lot. with sahag's in LA as my standard so far, these were not in the same league. no side nibbles (at sahag's ya get olives, lif'ts and i think pickles too). the bread was unremarkable sesame topped sandwich roll. sandwiches were filled with their respective meat, shredded lettuce, pickle and i think a bit of mayo (wasn't paying too much attention as they were clearly lame-ish sandwiches and i was risking running late). both of the meats were ok (they make their own said the counterman), but nothing beyond that - not as assertively flavored as the stuff at sahag's. but the big thing to me ... these puppies were served cold, i'm pretty positive i've always had them hot pressed, panini-style. fresno might have some wonderful stuff that rivals sahag's, but ohanyan's ain't it.

                after finishing up work stuff in dinuba, i was free to grub and figured to head down the 16 miles to visalia via highway 63/Rd 128. now, i have this gut feeling that if one took the time in dinuba, one could find some really amazing agua de fresa. unfortunately i didn't get to test this out, as it was already late mid-afternoon and there were 4 places in visalia i was tryna hit before making it back to a few more spots in fresno.

                on the way to visalia on Rd 128, i saw some stuff that made me wanna come back and try when there was more time: there was a sign for a tortilleria that also had carnitas, chicharon, etc; a mariscos place; a mexican spot with a man working a grill out front, and a rexall drugstore that i think mighta still had a fountain (all on the west side of the road). but the one thing that had me stop in my tracks and bust a u-turn in Cutler, was a sign that read "poblinita #4". i've been looking for a place to get a puebla type cemita with no success, so when i saw this sign i got pretty excited. after a quick scan of the menu board failed to turn up what i was looking for, i asked the guy at the counter if they had cemitas. he said they didn't, so - hopes dashed - i mumbled i'd have 2 tacos de asada con todo. the tacos were cool, the carne asada was actually pretty good, nice and moist, the tortilla was a single one (not double layered), and was machine made but was thicker and "fluffier" than your usual "hecho a machina" type, pretty nice. the tacos were topped with a tiny bit of cilantro, just a bit of shredded cabage (i think ... i wasn't mentally all there, so it mighta been lettuce), and some workable red salsa, i think there was barely any cebolla - like it just kinda fell in by accident. overall, the tacos were ok, $1/ea. when i went up to pay, i asked the girl at the counter if she knew where they had cemitas around here. well, she sorta deflected the question but said they'd be selling them here in 2 weeks. "with quesillo?" i asked. "yes". this was great news; in LA i think the cemitas tend to come default with queso fresco, and they charge more for ones with the more normal traditional quesillo. high on the news and hoping to score some papalo leaves for diy, i asked where i could buy papalo leaves myself. then the axe fell: "oh no, they only have it in LA." ouch, i don't know how much of a cemita it is without papalo, but i'm still down to come back and try - i wonder if they'll sub it with rau ram or something (which would make sense given the area)? (fly warning)

                i know that the noggin wasn't working too good at that point because it took me fully 15 minutes on the road - almost to visalia - to realize what i'd done, or rather what i hadn't done. on poblinita's menu board there was an antojitos section that had memelitas, gringas, sopes and other stuff i don't recall, which i should've ordered, instead of getting some friggin tacos like an idiot! but i seriously had a delayed reading comprehension moment there, sigh.

                well, my frustration about the taco gaff was soon soothed once i got to n. court st in visalia and walked into lao kitchen/noodle house. my kinda spot: small and home-y, five-and-a-half small tables (big 2-tops used as small 4 tops), sportcenter on tv, signage mostly in lao, menu a one-page printout underneath the table glass, customers speaking either lao (i think) or spanish, and tables still needing a wiping - all good omens. the strike against was that there was english on the menu, but at least that helped me out. i got a small khao soy $3 (or maybe $4) and uncooked beef laab w/ tripe $7(?), woohoo! the soup noodle was nice, the laab was quite good and came with the requisite cabbage wedges, and cucumber and prik kee noo chilies to eat alongside. i wanna come back and have the #1: seafood soup noodle, the lao-style beef soup noodle, yam talay, and gaeng. good times. (fly warning)

                after leaving lao kitchen happy, i poked around across the street at the small snack shacks with shared outdoor picnic bench seating. i stumbled onto lao food express. oh man. since eating in thailand i haven't really been able to eat thai food in the US cuz it's always so disappointing. finally my salvation in the central valley, now i can eat again. casual, cheap, outdoors, not diluted, yummy snacks - this is how it's supposed to be. i got a packet of sticky rice, a piece of sai oua sausage, and a little container of nam prik (in thai ... don't know how it's said in lao). i guess 4 hours from the bay area ain't too too bad when i get the jones for nam prik and stuff. hmmm, gotta check sacto. (fly warning)

                fly warning: if you can't get down with some flying friends trying to share your food with you, and doing the fly-wave while you eat, then the above 3 places probably aren't gonna work for you.

                the next stop was at taylor brothers hot dog stand. walking up to the stand, it looked kinda cool - worn down old school fast food shack. a hotdog at $1.15 plus tax came out to less than a buck and a quarter. i ordered one with everything: chili, onion, i think mustard and maybe relish (kinda turned off after the first bite). the dog was pretty small, maybe 4 inches. it's not a bad deal if you need to throw something down, but really tastes a bit below average. bun is generic white fluff, the chili is probably the strongest component which means it's mediocre, the dog was no-casing school lunch turkey dog type with weird artificial smoke taste.

                crap, hagopian's was not there!

                after the dog i needed something to wash it down, so i figured i'd get an agua de fresa (since i missed it in dinuba) while checking out sy-salathai, a restaurant that bills itself as thai and lao. walking around the area by sy-salathai i was unable to find an agua de fresa at either the nearby mariscos spot or the mercadito, but i did spot a raspados cart while walking to the above 2 places. the cart has an hq called maxi raspados at 2431 locust st, 559.740.0831 (if i remember right). there was a mess of flavors divided into naturales and artificiales, and a big line of kids and moms. i got a small strawberry (natural), but there were many (10?) "natural" flavors including guayaba and others, and even more (15+?) "articial" flavors including root beer, strawberry (again), and "tiger blood" (i think they have this at hawaiian shave ice stands). mine had chunks of good ripe strawberries in red syrup that wasn't crazy sweet ( though i don't have anything resembling raspado expertise); very nice in the hot valley weather.

                raspado in hand, i went to check out the scene at sy-salathai. it was no one there in the late afternoon lull (though the lao kitchen had, just a bit earlier, been full and with people poking heads in to check for empty tables periodically). after checking out the menu and seeing the spot's vibe, i get the feeling that it's a more whitenized place - though probably on par if not better than most of the bay area's thai offerings. but that's just an unconfirmed gut feeling, so who knows.

                next up, i headed for mearle's drive in. rolling up, it seemed like a real '50s drive in that stuck around, as opposed to a '50s-retro style as-romanticized-fetish "theme". cool. i ordered a vanilla malt and chiliburger with fries. the fries were ok, the burger was ok, but the portions were outstanding. the order coulda been split 2-ways and still been a respectable meal (and i ain't a wimpy eater) for about $6.50 before tax. the malt was very good, thick, rich, and very malty (with little malt bits), if a little too sweet for my taste.

                after mearle's, it was time to start back to the bay, but i wanted to redeem my earlier armenian disappointment and drop by izi deli (as per sillyrabbit's advice) on the way. unfortunately when i called they had already closed for the day.

                heading north on 99 before hitting fresno, i saw signs advertising date shakes at valley ranch (?)(or similarly named) truck stop/tourist trap at the "travelers" exit. for the past 2-3 months i'd been really wanting a date shake, but palm springs seemed an awful long way to go just for 1 drink without even a flimsy pretext to head in that direction. so voila, perfect timing i guess. i got a date shake for $4 just as they were closing. it was good though not very datey, maybe 1 or 2 dates blended into the cup, if even. it was not as sweet as the shake at mearle's (a good thing), though not quite as rich, however this perception could've been affected by the presence of the maltiness and more sugar in the mearle's shake making it just seem richer. i gotta say though, the shakes seem better than in the bay area. it seems like theres more depth in the milk-y flavor and has a more fresh taste to it. maybe the proximity to dairy sources might make a difference.

                all in all a great time eating down there. damn, now i have to take eating daytrips to fresno and visalia. here's some of the other stuff on the hit/recon list:

                Chowhound Mentions:

                asia supermarket and area
                bingo thai
                golden bowl
                place across tulare from roosevelt

                b&k asian kitchen
                lao paradise

                sweet ginger thai
                thai house
                thai royal orchid

                diane's/koko's armenian
                armenian cuisine
                george's (esp bullard)
                izi deli
                king of kabobs
                fresno deli
                nina's bakery
                valley bakery

                mediterranean restaurant

                basque hotel
                santa fe basque
                shepherd's inn

                old fresno hofbrau

                No Board Mentions:

                chhouk sor/phnom penh noodle
                ty yang market
                flying horse
                tiger products
                75-2 oriental restaurant
                thai girl restaurant
                bedrosian's armenian deli
                laojalurn sandwich
                cafe lu khach

                2 Replies
                1. re: ken ivorous

                  Thanks for the great report ken, I always like it when a visitor uncovers some places that the local hounds have overlooked.

                  One note, you may have been one of the last customers to ever get a burger and shake at Mearle's. On the local news the other night was a segment about the owner's financial problems and the landlord seving an eviction notice. Former employees interviewed say they've had trouble with their paychecks bouncing since last November. Sadly it may be RIP for this local Visalia institution.

                  Also, the Mexicatessen, that was so popular for so long has been gone for a number of years.



                  1. re: ken ivorous


                    sai oua
                    khao poon
                    khao feun !!!
                    khao soi

                    grocery/cafe, n. court:
                    laab dip - maybe not as good as down two doors
                    khao niao

                  2. Hey Ken,
                    Sorry that you missed out on the IZI experience, but it's a good reason to come back. Make sure to hit B&K while you're here.

                    If you take the 99 down, I'd make a point of stopping at Thai House in Modesto off Standiford. It's one of the best restaurants I've been to, family owned, great food. Sorry, no flies, but they have an all-you-can-eat lunch one Sunday a month that rocks. The flavors are really clean and damn hot if you want them that way.

                    Oh yeah, if you want tables that don't quite get bussed in time, and some funny looks like "You don't really belong here, but we'll let you stay because you appreciate our food" then head over to Pho 99 off McKinley in Fresno just around the corner from B&K.

                    But you won't get better service than from Gloria and Ara at IZI. Their hummus is better than my Lebanese mother's. Nope, I'm not getting a kickback.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: sillyrabbit

                      I'll put a plug in for Pho Paradise btw McKinley and Clinton on Fresno St. Their banh mi bbq pork (#21) is excellent as is their basic pho (#2, iirc). Looking forward to trying some of their seafood dishes when the cooler weather arrives.

                      1. re: sillyrabbit

                        Hubby and I really enjoyed Pho 99 our last time out there. It was a rainy afternoon and we were freezing, but the hot pho broth warmed us right up! I think their broth is better than May's Cafe, but I still need to try Pho Paradise when the weather turns cold (if that ever happens!).

                        I think we were the only white people in Pho 99 that day and ordered by pointing. They give you a ton of condiments there, whereas at May's Cafe you have to ask if you want more than one piece of parsely.

                        1. re: glazebrookgirl

                          I should have added, even though I've been getting the same banh mi at Pho Paradise for over a year on a regular basis, the reception is always rather cool, but then again, I'm not there to make friends. ;>P

                          May Cafe on the other hand have always been cordial and outgoing.

                      2. did you say Hagopian's is no more?

                        1. unfortunately hagopian's didn't appear to exist anymore when i rolled by, i was looking forward to checking them out.

                          regarding pho and other vietnamese grub: is visalia and fresno generally better/denser than san jose? how about sacramento?

                          also, at viet spots in the area, what condiments do they generally give for the pho? do most provide ngo gai? rau ram? etc? or do they just do the basil/beansprout thing (i'm wondering more about the for-real places as opposed to the white type ones)?

                          and polar bear, that's sad to hear about mearle's closing. it seemed like an og spot; quite a few senior-ish couples on dates with their s.o.'s, when i was eating there. too bad.

                          about armenian stuff: where are the ch posts on basturma and soujouk in the fresno area? when i tried a search, it only turned up one, but it seems like fresno is a big time armenian community, so there's got to be a bunch that the search is missing. any info on where to find these posts?


                          2 Replies
                          1. re: ken ivorous

                            Here's a heads up and link to an article in the local paper that I posted last fall.


                            Here are a couple of updates that appeared recently to an old thread.

                            1. re: ken ivorous

                              Regarding the vietnamese spots: Pho 99 that I mentioned above provided a virtual salad to go along with the pho, including basil, beansprouts, and cilantro(not sure if it was ngo gai or rau ram). There were also a multitude of sauces including a plum sauce, and also what looked like some homemade sauces.

                              May's Cafe only provided a few strands of bean sprouts and basil. So I think it tends to vary from place to place, although both places will provide more of anything if you ask.

                            2. Hagopians in Visalia closed in September. Richard planned to retire and let his son run it but his son is ill and could not take on a business.

                              1. First and McKinley - Pho 99 is the pho mothership... the other places are newer and bigger, but go back over the years and 99 is the Source, thank Bacchus it has survived the proliferation of similiar restaurants in the area... hey more choices for us. I am always asking the Asians I meet what's what, and I have been getting consistent votes for May's and 99.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: fresnohotspot

                                  By the way, the different herbs Ken Ivorous mentioned are choices each restaurant will provide based on availability and the tastes of the cook. Pho 99 provides the Hung Que (Thai Basil) which is more traditional. Rau Ram (Vietnamese Coriander) is more spicy with a hint of Cilantro, and Ngo Gai (Mexican Coriander) is a more robust version of Cilantro (Ngo Mui). Ngo Gai is another of the traditional pho ingredients. If you want to try them, you can always ask. Remember where we live... this is where it all grows, and the local restaurants are directly supplied by Hmong, Laotian or Vietnamese family farms.

                                  1. re: fresnohotspot

                                    Just had the pho special at May's yesterday (Fresno and Clinton). The restaurant was clean and the fixtures were newer than at most Viet restaurants. The staff was friendly and efficient, and the place did a rocking business - at least at lunchtime. The tables quickly filled with police officers and hospital employees and there was a constant stream of takeout orders (large ones). The menu was well laid out and prices were very reasonable. And the pho was... just okay. I think this is one of the "safe places" to try Vietnamese cuisine, but the compromise is the americanization of some flavors. Little things bugged me, like the small dish of basil, and sprouts accompanying the pho, and the slight sweetness of the broth, the already cooked meat in the hot broth... but that's me. In fairness, there are many dishes that I still haven't tried at May's but for pho, I will stick with 99.

                                    1. re: fresnohotspot

                                      I second your opinion Pho 99 has the best pho beef noodle soup in town. I've tried the others in town and in LA and pho 99 compares very favorably. I judge the quality of pho by its broth and pho 99 has the best combination of flavor and spices probably because they cook the traditional method by boiling down beef bones. I frequently order take out because of convenience of eating at home. If you do, one tip is to ask them to not precook the rice noodles. They can be cooked at home in boiling water for approx. 30 seconds.

                                2. The "chunk of tofu" haha as you say is called "klung fun" but some people call it liang fun. It's actually a mix of water, rice flour, and (a small pinch of) limestone powder (in Mien, it is called huy). After being heated and stirred for about 30 mins, you leave it out or in the fridge to cool down. You serve it with the juice made of water, tamarind powder and sometimes tomatoes and a spicy bean and pepper paste. It's supposed to be a dessert, but I consider it as a snack. It's tasty, but bad if you eat too much of it because the limestone powder in it may cause kidney stones. Just letting you know what the big chunk of tofu is. Some of my non-Mien friends thought it was cheese or very mashed potatoes, so don't feel bad.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: uhohmeshelleyooz

                                    Welcome to the board, and thanks much for your detailed and informative insights. I see you've posted on the SF board as well, I would love to hear more about the places you like and their specialties, basically anywhere on the west coast.

                                    1. re: uhohmeshelleyooz

                                      Cool, thanks. There's a lao place i get it from too and they were calling it khao feun. Also my coach was saying people call it liang feun, or kao liang feun too. What spots do you like to get it from? Btw, i kinda figured out it wasn't literally tofu when i used to buy it back in the day lol, but appearance-wise i figured people would know i'm describing it kind of looks like. Just curious, do you find any decent khao soi, or khao poon at oakland or richmond restaurants? Thanks again!

                                      1. re: ken ivorous

                                        In oakland, there are 4 main spots for kao soy and kao poon
                                        -Champa Garden is great and very nicely decorated
                                        -Vientien is my favorite for kao soy
                                        -Green Papaya is great for papaya salad
                                        and.. my aunts restaurant
                                        -Cafe Orchid (across the street from the mien store) her specialty is kao poon
                                        I apologize for the late response, but I hope it helped

                                        1. re: ken ivorous

                                          Yeah, that tofu-like dish is a northern Lao specialty called Khao Laeng Feun. I believe Vientian Cafe in Oakland sells Khao Laeng Feun. Some people love Khao Laeng Feun, but I'm not a big fan of it for some reason. Perhaps I haven't had really good Khao Laeng Feun yet. =)

                                      2. Hi everyone. I'm new to the board and am amazed at how active the CA board is ! Thrilled, actually :)

                                        I am traveling from Paso Robes to Visalia today, a place I've never been, and wondered what the current rec's are for a fairly casual Asian (pretty broad !) place to have dinner (in Visalia). My friend also likes authentic (not Americanized) Mexican, so that might also be a possibility.

                                        Lot's of good info in the above posts, but wondered if there is anything more current.


                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: dockhl

                                          I don't get down to Visalia much, so hopefully someone else will be able to chime in here, the board seems to find Tommy's, Cafe 225, Fugazzi's, Vintage Press, and Acequia as the current favorites. I have posted the links below, most of which are more recent recommendations. I haven't really been able to find much in the way of Asian, so maybe someone else can help with that.

                                          I see you posted on egullet as well and were looking for ethnic markets or if strawberries were out. Hubby and I just drove by a couple strawberry stands and see that the early berries are out. Probably not the best of the crop, yet, but loads better than the supermarket. As for ethnic markets, there is a R-N Supermarket in Exeter and the one in Fresno has a pretty good selection of Asian goods.
                                          R-N Supermarket
                                          655 W. Visalia Rd.
                                          Exeter, CA 93221

                                          Tommy's, Cafe 225, Fugazzi's, Vintage Press

                                          Acequia in Visalia:

                                          A Thai place in Exeter:

                                          Hopefully, that is somewhat helpful and welcome to Chowhound!

                                          1. re: glazebrookgirl

                                            Thanks. gbg
                                            I do spend most of my time on The Other Board :)
                                            I'll check out the strawberries. Yes, gotta be better than red (ish) styrofoam.


                                        2. Hey Ken!
                                          I'm Mien and I know what you're talking about. The dish you are talking about is very Mien and ONLY Mien. It is called Kalang Fen. It is served cold...spicy, sour, and the smell of the roasted peppers and tomatoes just get you going.

                                          Mien people also make a rice noodle soup that is distinctive from any other noodle soups out there.

                                          Mien noodle soup = Mien Khao Soy (It's special because Mien people make a certain kind of Pork paste that sets the flavoring for the noodle soup.) SOOOOOOO good. A must try.

                                          And there are several other Mien goodies that you must try. Our food may be a little more spicy and less sweet than most Thai or Lao food. So just be aware of the spice level.