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San Jose Viet Lunch Group goes to Cao Nguyen

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Ten hungry hounds met for lunch today at Cao Nguyen in East San Jose (see address below). This was a first visit for the group, and only a couple of us had eaten here before. Enjoyable time as usual. I've listed dishes and included photos below and hope that my fellow hounds will elaborate.

Items ordered (I included some Viet names in parentheses):
1. Rice flour "cupcakes" with coconut milk and shrimp (banh khot)
2. Lime-marinated beef salad (goi bo tai chanh)
3. Deep-fried pork intestines
4. Grilled quail
5. Beef with vinegar "fondue"
6. Sweet and sour soup with catfish (canh chua...)
7. Pork braised in claypot (thit heo kho)
8. Salt and pepper squid
9. Water spinach sauteed with garlic (rau muong xao)
10. Grilled marinated pork (thit nuong)
11. West Lake soup with beef

Total cost per person including some drinks to go around plus tax and tip was $17.

Photos of our lunch can be viewed here:
http://www.kodakgallery.com/ShareLand...

Cao Nguyen
2549 S. King Rd.
San Jose 95122
(408)270-9610

Other reports on Cao Nguyen:

http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

http://www.metroactive.com/papers/met...

http://www.sanfranmag.com/archives/vi...

http://www.killerrobot.com/wes/eats_v...

If anyone is interested in getting an email invite for our weekday lunch forays, please email me at carbloverhoundatyahoodotcom

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  1. Wonderful meal and great company.

    Least favorite was the Westlake soup, not for taste or presentation, but we were told it was Vietnamese verison but it was just like the Chinese verison.

    Loved the Beef Foude, Fried Pork Intestines and the Rice cupcakes. The cupcakes did not looked crispy but were about just right.

    All the other dishes were fine but nothing else jump up and said order me again.

    Thanks Tran and Alice for being our guides again.

    1. Driving here, I was very excited to see the high-percentage of Vietnamese signs in the area. It reminded me of Westminster, CA.

      I didn't dislike this restaurant, but admit that recent trips to Nha Toi have me severely spoiled for Viet meals.

      My notes below:

      1. Rice flour "cupcakes" with coconut milk and shrimp (banh khot)
      - I've had these 2-3 times at Ngoc Mai in the Tenderloin. I like this dish. It was tasty and well prepared.

      2. Lime-marinated beef salad (goi bo tai chanh)
      - fine, but not inspiring. I've had better.

      3. Deep-fried pork intestines
      - tasty. tasty tasty! The smaller pieces had just the right amount of crunch and chewiness. Sauce was too sweet and improved with fish sauce/chilles. Would order again.

      4. Grilled quail
      - ooh. Really nice. Perfect rolled in salt/pepper with fresh-squeezed lime. More please.

      5. Beef with vinegar "fondue"
      - very good flavor on the fondue. I would have liked thinner-sliced beef. Generally as good as others.

      6. Sweet and sour soup with catfish (canh chua...)
      - improved with nuoc mam and chili sauce. The catfish was plentiful and tasty.

      7. Pork braised in claypot (thit heo kho)
      - overcooked and not enough sauce. Flavor was fine, though.

      8. Salt and pepper squid
      - poorly done. Neither crispy not juicy. Far from awful, just uninspiring.

      9. Water spinach sauteed with garlic (rau muong xao)
      - good and flavorful.

      10. Grilled marinated pork (thit nuong)
      - Nothing to complain about

      11. West Lake soup with beef
      - I enjoyed, but far from sublime.

      I generally found this a nice restaurant, but wouldn't specifically go here again. In the area I wouldn't refuse it. Of course, I absolutely enjoyed the company - it aids in digestion.

      1. Another delicious lunch! With Tran's and Alice's invaluable assistance, our exploration of Vietnamese cuisine is always amply rewarded. Nha Toi and Vung Tau are still firm favorites--we really are spoiled--but Cao Nguyen had its moments. The quail, banh khot, and beef "fondue" come to mind. The fried pork intestines were pretty good, too: crisp on the outside and, thankfully, only mildly pig-gy tasting.

        1. The banh khot met my very high expectations (it was actually my first time ever eating banh khot, and I'd heard so much about it). As Yimster said it didn't look crispy but it had enough crackin' crisp to contrast with the almost custardy middle. The dipping sauce however is a little weak and tad too sweet.

          The beef salad was way too sweet, and not enough rau ram nor enough fried shallots (but they were house fried). The sauce that came out with the beef salad (mam nem) was full of aroma and complex tastes (fermented anchovy paste, garlic, pineapple, vinegar and sugar), but it didn't seem to pair correctly with the beef salad. I think this pungent sauce is more correcty appreciated when served as a dipping sauce with poached pork belly, or steamed fish, to make into rice paper wraps. It made another appearance, as the dipping sauce for the beef vinegar fondue (wherein the raw beef is dipped into simmering vinegar then made into rice paper wraps), and that application worked better than with the beef salad.

          Speaking of the beef fondue, I didn't like the eye of round cut they used, it was actually less tender cooked rare than cooked medium well. But that vinegar, flavored with chili oil, onions, and maybe some stock, was really flavorful and deeply satisfying when I sipped it with my spoon; it's too bad you can't really taste it in the beef wrap, when the pungent dipping sauce drowned out the vinegar's flavor.

          The other dishes were mostly good to okay but not great. I agree the fried squid's batter was not good (of my 2 pieces one was barely crisp, one was actually tough/chewy). I actually wasn't a fan of the intestines (it was not bad, and as pilinut says not as piggy tasting as others I've had, but the texture was not spot on; could've used more contrast between the crisp on the outside and the soft-chewiness inside).

          I liked the pork in claypot better than David did, maybe because I've cooked this dish before and have not been able to get it tender (I thought their rendition which Yimster told me was made with pork shoulder, was actually tender). Also, you usually end up with either a little but very tasty sauce, or a lot but somewhat bland sauce.

          Overall I'm glad we came here and I'd readily come back for the banh khot, but except for the banh khot, it seems there are similar dishes that are available and tastier elsewhere (ie Vung Tau and Nha Toi).

          1. I'm back to share my thoughts. Cao Nguyen had its ups and downs for me, but the company was enjoyable as usual.

            Ups:
            -As others have said, the banh khot. Freshly made w/ a custardy center and crisp bottom. Rich coconut flavor. 3 orders confirms that it was a crowd favorite.
            -Grilled quail were tasty, although expectedly boney. Nice marinade and smokiness. Liked the salt, pepper, lime condiment.
            -Beef and vinegar fondue w/ accompaniments was fun to assemble and eat. Agree that the beef could have been sliced more thinly, but the vinegar broth was nice.
            -I liked my xi muoi drink. Appropriately salty w/ nice chunks of preserved plum. Drinks here are inexpensive at below $2.
            -Prices here are relatively low. You can pig out w/o worrying about your pocketbook. Portions and quality are not comparable to Vung Tau or Nha Toi IMO though.
            -Service was attentive and downright doting for a Viet establishment. Brought us many plate exchanges and were responsive to requests. Pleasant atmosphere.

            Downs:
            -I was excited about the fried pork intestines from reading reviews, but alas, they didn't live up to my expectations. I've never had this before, but somehow was expecting a lighter and fluffier texture whereas these were heavily battered and leaden. Didn't care for the sweet viscous sauce.
            -Salt and pepper squid were chewy and just ho-hum. Vung Tau's version is better.
            -Beef salad was adequate but one of the poorer versions as compared to other stops along our lunch tour. Most memorable for me remains the one from My Canh.

            In general, the sauces and sophistication at Cao Nguyen really paled in comparison to our recent visits to Nha Toi. Most things were adequate to good and tasty, but didn't really stand out as special. The overall ingredients didn't seem quite as fresh as other places. I'm getting spoiled and picky...

            That said, I would like to return to explore more. Husband and I were there this past weekend so I could scope it out, and we noticed that most diners were slurping up noodle soups. The 200+ item menu merits further research...

            BTW, Sun Market in the same shopping center is a little Viet market w/ some good staples and a small fish and meat counter. Lion market is also across the street.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Carb Lover

              "I'm getting spoiled and picky..."

              Hilarious - yes you are, as am I. I could do Nha Toi for another 6 lunches and be happy. :)

              1. re: David Wishart

                Yes, let's do Nha Toi again--as soon as we've digested Thanksgiving dinner. I'm still obsessing about that pineapple fish sauce.