Silicon Valley Chowdown Report: Nha Toi in San Jose
We've just settled the bill. Jefferson plugged his flashcard into my laptop for the photos of our lunch. Courtesy of the free wi-fi here at Nha Toi, I've uploaded a slideshow of our utterly delicious lunch.
Please check back later for photo captions and comments from the seven of us.
My favorite dish was the Malabar spinach soup with nubbins of crab patties. Very light broth made with the crab juices, bright tender leafy greens, a few pieces of prawns, and the added fresh sweetness of loofah. Lilting and refreshing.
My mom corrected me about the sauce that is above the beef salad in the first Photo. It's not mam gung, it's tuong gung. Tuong is a thick brown liquid made from soybean paste. The sauce we tasted was probably made from tuong, minced ginger, sugar, and either water or water and fish sauce to thin it. My mom doesn’t think there would be peanut in there, so maybe the server was referring only to the peanut dipping sauce that came out at the same time.
I had ordered the beef salad plus that sauce, and the co-owner told me that sauce goes with a different beef dish on the menu, but since I wanted the beef salad, she gave us some of that sauce for us to taste.
You know after we started eating I realized I ordered so many salads and so many things with pork skin. But I'm glad everyone picked up on the slight differences in tastes of each salad. Also I meant to order a dish with the purple fermented shrimp sauce (mam tom) but after placing our order it didn’t seem like we needed to add another dish. Y’all will need to come another time for the mam tom!
All in all I liked everything, except for the bi cuon which were skimpy on the bi (pork & porkskin & toasted rice powder) in the filling. I should note that the tuna braised in galangal had a perfect deep savory sauce not overwhelming with galangal; I liked this sauce better than the mackerel braised in sugarcane sauce; I wish they would do this dish with catfish or mackerel instead of tuna. And the soup was just as good as when I had it on my first visit. My mom will be sending me the recipe for how to make this soup, so next time I see the malabar spinach at the farmer’s market, you’ll know what will be posted on the Home Cooking board.
I'm glad it's getting some well-deserved attention from other media who follow this board. Chowhounds have been all over it --- some other reports with more recommendations on what to order:
Thanks for the link to that article. I can't believe the owner's son is Tony Bui, director of Three Seasons. That's pretty cool...
Thanks to the group for the quick report and photos! I regret not being able to attend, but I look forward to trying that soup and more on my next visit!
I don't know if anyone noticed, but along the stalls where I parked they have vines of cucumbers and squash going up the fence along with various herbs. (If I had a kitchen down here, I would have been tempted to grab a few of those squash blossoms for some quesadillas.)
Thanks for giving us an occasion to get together. Now I'm feeling guilty because I had about a dozen extra squash blossoms in the trunk that I picked the day before that I could have given you. (g)
Would also mention the easy access off 280. It was a breeze for me to be on way north again.
Oops, flash was too strong on some of those. Nick's were done with natural light, so we might get a good alternative angle.
My first "Chowdown," thanks so much for the invitation and fun to meet you. Alice, you made it run so smoothly; how would I say "omakase" in Vietnamese?
I was very surprised at how un-busy the restaurant was. Perhaps this neighborhood is too far out for downtown lunch rush? They even have parking... Some thoughts on these dishes, most of which I have never had before:
Beef Salad - Tasty slices of beef, crunchy fried shallots, and toasted sesame seeds made this a winner. Of all the ways that we had pork skin, these thin slices were the least tenderized; perhaps they are included for texture contrast. Although you see a lot of onions in the photo, they were very mild, almost gentle.
Fish Salad - My immediate reaction was "Garlic!" and "This requires beer!" I loved the strong acidic flavor reminiscent of ceviche. But the more I ate, the more sourness or bitterness or astringency crept in around the edges. Perhaps there is an herb in here that I'm not accustomed to? (Or it's nature's way of saying that two helpings is enough.)
Cooked Water Spinach Salad - Extremely mild vegetable with a sort of "haricot vertes" shape and texture, paired with very tender "pork skin" prepared to look and feel almost identical to jellyfish. Fun to eat.
Chicken Salad - Light and refreshing, with strips of chicken skin that seemed strangely substantial and un-fatty. I believe there was pork skin in this one, too, cooked more in the "faux jellyfish" manner.
Spinach Soup - Smelling like the most intense spinach cooking water, the soup is amazingly mild and leaves none of that "squeaky teeth" feeling I sometimes get from regular spinach. And it's not every day you get to eat a loufah.
Among the main courses, the minced pork had the most intense flavor. Reminded me of Thai prik khing curry (typically served with pork & green beans), but with much greater depth and concentration of flavor. The cucumbers were not quite up to the job of balancing the salt and spice; the rice really helped.
Tuna - I prefer my tuna raw because it is so dense when cooked. The braising made this one very flavorful, but still quite solid (perhaps better matched to a fork and knife than chopsticks?).
As we cleaned all the plates, I had another of the Summer Rolls, and was surprised how the herbs perked up my palate. It made me think that eating in a set sequence of appetizers, salads, soup and entrees might "wear down" the palate, and having a bit of this and that out of sequence could bring back the surprise and delight of the first taste, or reveal unnoticed dimensions.
Hopefully I will get back here soon.
Splendid to chow with you, Jefferson! Thanks for taking on photographer duties. It was funny that we were screening the slideshow of our lunch before the dishes were cleared away.
Forgot to mention that my salty lemon soda was good, served with a can of Canada Dry club soda to add to the fresh squeezed, aromatic juice and ice cubes in a glass.
re: Melanie Wong
I guess I'm posting a little on the late side, as everyone has left such detailed posts. Thanks to all for a really nice meal and great company, with a special thanks to Alice for organizing and ordering.
Certainly the soup was a highlight, but the fish salad was my next favorite. There was a sharpness to it from raw garlic, but it didn't detract from the dish for me. It was like an improved cerviche, with an ideal balance of sweet/spicy/sour, and great textural contrast from the raw fish, onions, and herbs. Definitely a place to return to and explore more of the menu.
re: Josh Fredericks
I'll tack on my late post here because I agree with Josh:
First: I enjoyed the meal immensely, especially the soup and the fish salad but the tuna was a surprise - much tastier sauce than the mackeral IMHO
Second: Wonderful company; great to meet Nick, Josh and Jefferson and always good to see David, Melanie and Alice (thank you for guiding us thru this menu; love to hear about dishes that you haven't had since your Grandmother made them... and the input from your Mom too)
Third: I'm still looking forward to exploring more of their menu! This is such a pleasant, laid-back place. I hope they are successful but at the same time, I hope they don't get so busy that we can't get in...
This was my second proper Vietnamese meal in over 3 weeks, and a nice welcome back to South Bay dining.
Bi Cuon - very nice. Reminded me somewhat of a Japanese salmon skin roll
Goi Cuon - as good as they should be
Goi Bo - favorite dish #1. Meat was rare-ish and tender. Great balance. Good Nuoc Mam and I appreciated the containers of FRESH chillies.
Goi Ca - Enjoyable, but the flavor got somewhat bitter after many bites
Goi Ga (Chicken Salad) - good, but enjoyed the beef salad more
Nom Rau Muong - I didn't have much of this, but liked it better than the fish and chicken salads
Com Chien Ca Man - comparable to good salted fish fried rice in Chinese restaurants
Canh Mong Toi voi Muop & Rieu Cua - beyond tasty. Not something I would want as an individual meal, but as part of this meal it was divine. Well-balanced and clean. We were told by one of the women working there that in poorer northern parts of Viet Nam, this was made with the small crabs found in rice fields. I loved it. Favorite #2
Ca Thu Kho Rieng - A good, solid dish. I liked the galangal sauce (a close cousin to tamarind, I think). Tuna was cooked well, which suited the sauce, but I can appreciate the desire for a rarer temperature.
Mam Ruoc Hue Xao Xa Ot Thit Heo - came into it's own after Alice ordered a side of white steamed rice. Another new dish for me, it reminded me of the pungent shrimp and fish pastes I would eat with sticky rice in Thailand. I want this as a snack with beer in the afternoon.
Mam Gung (ginger & toasted rice powder peanut sauce or something like that) - This sauce was new to me and liked it very much with my Goi Cuon.
I was craving a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with the food, and they had a Mondavi Fumé Blanc which worked out well - $5.00. Bottles were $25. The menu said corkage is $10.00
Decor: I was pleased to bamboo surrounding the building, and an elegant arrangement of bamboo leaves and a freshly picked yellow flower (unknown origin) as centerpieces to each table. Dark wood wainscoting, butter yellow walls, bamboo lamp shades and quiet environment made for excellent ambiance. Service was attentive. I immediately felt good when I walked in. The owners care about what they're doing.
Alice - Thanks for organizing! It was nice to see old and new faces today.
re: David Wishart
Recalling your comments about the bamboo, I stopped to take a photo of the front entrance before heading off. I could easily have spent the afternoon sitting under one of those umbrellas on the deck.
I'll mention that I stayed about 20 minutes working on email before giving up our table. I was offered ice water and tea, and the "love letter" cookies were bagged up for me to take with me. The man behind the cash register exchanged some pleasantries with me. He said that we'd barely scratched the surface of the unique, northern style dishes he has to offer and that I needed to come back many times to learn about them.
Alice, thank you so much for introducing me to the cuisine of your grandmothers.
Here are some captions to go with Jefferson's photos on Melanie's slideshow:
1. Goi Bo - Beef & pork skin Salad. With bowl of mam gung (ginger & toasted rice powder peanut sauce or something like that) in top right of photo.
2. Bi Cuon - Pork Skin Rolls
3. Chicken Salad - Not sure what the Viet name is; I ordered Ga Xe Phay (shredded chicken) but what we got seemed like Goi Ga (chicken salad)
4. Goi Cuon - Summer Rolls (called Spring Rolls on their menu)
5. Goi Ca - Fish Salad
6. individual serving of beef salad
7. individual serving of fish salad
8. Nom Rau Muong - Cooked Water Spinach Salad with "poor man's jellyfish", shrimp, peanuts & sesame seeds
9. Closeup of water spinach salad (note deveined shrimp)
10. Com Chien Ca Man - Fried Rice with salted dried fish
11. Canh Mong Toi voi Muop & Rieu Cua - Soup with malabar spinach, luffa squash & ground crab
12. Ca Thu Kho Rieng - Tuna braised with galangal
13. Mam Ruoc Hue Xao Xa Ot Thit Heo - Minced pork with mam ruoc sauce, lemongrass & chile
14. Jefferson's plate with tuna, friend rice, and the Mam Ruoc with sliced cucumber
15. Closeup of soup
A very nice meal. Thanks to everyone for your hospitality and to Alice for organizing.
The soup was very pleasant, the broth tasting intensely green, if that's a flavor, but still maintaining the lightness of a broth, like the difference between tomato water and tomato sauce.
However, I think my favorite dishes were the salads first. Each of them unique enough, though admittedly I tend towards strong flavors so the balance of the lime, raw garlic, fried shallots, and herbs in the catfish was probably first for me. I also liked the tuna a lot, the saltiness tempered by the caramelly sweetness, though the dryness of the tuna didn't entirely work. But loved the flavor.