Ngu Binh - new Vietnamese @337 Jones, SF (former site of Hung Ky)
About two weeks ago a new Vietnamese restaurant opened at the location that was the site of one of Chowhounds' favorites, Hung Ky. Hung Ky had been sold and may reopen at some point in the Sunset District in San Francisco.
The new restaurant is
Ngu Binh (Dac Biet Bun Bo Hue)
337 Jones St. (between Ellis and Eddy)
San Francisco, Ca 94102
Hours: 8:30 AM - 7 PM
The dining area is the same except for some fresh paint and the large, flat-panel TV in the corner is gone. According to the waiter, it is a family run operation and is their first restaurant. They did not know Hung, the operator of Hung Ky, before they saw a classified ad listing Hung Ky for sale.
When I had an early lunch there last week, some of the kitchen equipment was being upgraded and not all the items on an early version of the menu were available. Understandably, it might still be a little while until it's fully up to speed. Right now they are focusing on the soup menu.
Off the Appetizer menu, I was interested in Banh Bot Loc (shrimp & pork with rice paste- $4.75) and Banh Nam (rice cake with shrimp-$4.75) and the waiter was kind enough to have the kitchen put together a 1/2 order of each.
The Banh Bot Loc came on a stylish, square green ceramic plate and consisted of short, (about 2"), oval translucent rice noodles or paste stuffed with medium shrimp and small pieces of pork. Also a fish sauce for dipping. I'd never had this dish (or the Banh Nam) before and found it and the presentation pretty appealing.
The Banh Nam came on small, round dishes about 2" in diameter with a thin layer of a soft, custardy-consistency rice cake with chopped shrimp, chopped chive and a couple of croutons on top. Very delicate.
An earlier version of their menu did list Banh Khot (pork, shrimp mini cake), Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake, served with mint leaves and lettuce), Banh Beo Chen (steamed rice cake with shrimp) and our beloved Banh Cuon Tay Ho (steamed rice rolls and fancy pork with fish sauce) but these items were whited-out on a newer menu and were not available on the day I went. My understanding is that these items will be available when the changes to the kitchen are completed.
Hopefully, some Chowhounders will check in at Ngu Binh and give them some encouragement during their transition in a tough spot. What little I did sample of their menu was intriquing and ambitious and am anxious to see what they can do given some more time.
this older thread had put ngu binh on my list, and i finally made it down there for lunch today. i ordered the banh khot and a small bun bo hue. i like that they offered a smaller option, since i had ordered an appetizer without anyone to share with.
the banh khot i've only had once before, at ngoc mai. that version was crispy, while this one was actually kind of soggy. the bottom of the cups were browned, but the middle was jiggly. if i picked one up with chopsticks, it would almost break in half. there was one bay shrimp in the center. the mint and lettuce were fresh, and the nuoc cham (sp?) dipping sauce was sweetish. i wasn't very happy with it, and didn't finish the last three.
the bun bo hue was a different story. while i agree that the broth wasn't the most full-bodied, i didn't find it to be watered-down, or disagreeably light. the slices of beef and pork were still tender, juicy, with very meaty flavor, not dried out or spent at all. the slice of steamed viet meat loaf was delicious, with a couple of coarse bits of black pepper, which was a nice surprise. this bowl was probably the most assertively spiced version i've had. i had been wondering if i've been served tame versions because i'm not vietnamese, or if hue style food just isn't really that spicy. this bowl built up to a long, intense burn, which my sinuses and i were grateful for on this dismal day. i even managed to eat most of my pork blood cubes, which is no longer a challenge to me, although i'm not about to champion it, either. i still prefer my pork blood incorporated into sausages, thank you.
i plan to go back soon to try their pho and the other appetizers i've never heard of before.
How exciting, that there is a Central Vietnamese restaurant in this part of SF. I wish I could make it up there to try the various banh, but probably won't get the chance soon.
Were the croutons on the banh beo chen lardons/fried fat, or were they bread? Oh, you should've used a soup spoon to eat the banh beo, much better than using chopsticks!
And no cubes of blood in the bun bo hue? Hmm, plus the absence of collagen unctousness; maybe Ngu Binh is watering down (pun intended) the bun bo hue to appeal to American tastebuds.
re: Melanie Wong
Okay, although I feel slightly inadequate, as I don't consider myself anything close to an expert on Vietnamese food.
The banh beo xhen (upper right, left-hand picture) I've only had once before, during a chowdown in San Jose. In this rendition, the disks of steamed rice noodle were slightly bigger than the ones I'd had, making them less delicate and more chewy. The ones I'd had before also had a much more pronounced dried shrimp flavor, while these had a combination of fresh and dried shrimp, as well as bigger chunks of green onion and small croutons. I'm not a big fan of the salty-fishy flavors of dried seafood, so I actually liked these better, but I suspect they were much less "authentic" and that people looking for an authentic version might be disappointed.
The banh xeo had a very thin, lacey crust that had a distinct coconut flavor. I thought it tasted good, but agreed with Melanie that it was a little too thin and didn't hold together well over the filling and/or that the filling to pancake ratio was off.
I don't think I've ever had the bun bo hue before, so again, I didn't have much criteria to judge it by. I thought it was tasty, and it delivered a nice, slow burn.
The plate of herbs and lettuce that accompanied the food was small, but sparkling fresh.
In short, as I told Melanie, I think it was good but not great. I think it's worth following up on in the future, though, once they've ironed out some of the problems with having all their specialty dishes available and have had a chance to settle in.
Note that they're open a little later than the former Hung Ky (until 7 pm), and that the restaurant is brighter and spiffed up.
re: Ruth Lafler
"...anything close to an expert on Vietnamese food."
Coulda fooled me. I've only had the banh beo once before. The version here frustrated me a bit as it was hard using chopsticks to get a mouthful that included all the elements. Even tried folding them over taco style but then it cracked and fell apart.
The banh xeo had bean sprouts, shrimp (with tail shells), and mushrooms (!) in the filling. I liked that the bean sprouts were stir-fried and not just stuck in raw. The dipping sauce was way too sweet.
The bun bo hue is a house specialty here and I found it much more delicate . . . maybe a better word is watery ... than other renditions. This didn't have the viscosity from long-boiled of pigs feet and their collagen gift. The meats were dried out, and while the menu said it had beef and pork, I couldn't identify them as either. No rau ram or banana blossom garnish provided, and our server seemed a bit surprised when I asked for some shrimp paste as a condiment for this. Maybe there's a regional style difference, but this was considerably less interesting than the robust bowl I've been served elsewhere.
The white-out'd items on the menu have been unmasked now, although there are still some items that aren't made every day. Like Ruth, I'd go back to try it again when things settle down.
re: Melanie Wong
Thanks Melanie and Ruth for your great reports. After the Holidays, I'll head back to Ngu Binh for some late breakfast since they open at 8:30 a.m. I do like the idea that they are offering a variety of Hue-style appetizers that (other than Ngoc Mai) no one else in San Francisco or the East Bay has.
Breakfast time may be a good niche for the restaurant. I thought the com tam bi suon cha (broken rice with shredded pork, bbq pork chop, and baked egg) would be a good start to the morning.
Can someone describe chanh giay ($2.50) which is listed on the beverage and dessert menu as "shredded lemon yam"?
When you have a chance, would love to hear about your meals at Ngoc Mai. I've only been there once, keep meaning to return.
re: Melanie Wong
What I find intriquing about Ngoc Mai is its homey feel. That section of Hyde Street (547 Hyde) has a residential feel instead of the grit and bustle of Jones St (Ngu Binh/Hing Ky, Shalimar, etc.) or the dense food mall block of Larkin (Turtle Tower, Bodega Bistro and the under construction Lee's Sandwiches).
A reviewer at Yelp.com kind of caught the flavor of Ngoc Mai:
"This place started off so promising. With its tiled walls, fluorescent lighting (well not entirely positive as it was the middle of sunny day, but I imagine it probably was), various knick knacks on the wall, and kitchen tucked in the back, this place had the look and smells of a place you may very well find in 'Nam. Okay, well I've never been to Vietnam. But I have eaten at places that looked like this in other parts of Asia, so I am imagining it is what a restaurant over there could look like." http://www.yelp.com/biz/QQfZ1Ih_GnCiV...
I've only had the crispy-fried banh khot (shrimp mini-crepe) and bun rieu (tomato, tofu, crab and vermicelli soup) at Ngoc Mai and if they are a notch below Vung Tau in San Jose, I still want to go back considering that the menu is so wide-ranging and reasonable (only one item is over $7.50) just to experiment. Many of their appetizers don't show up on the menus of Lotus Garden (Mission and 29th, SF)or Yummy Yummy (Irving and 11th Ave., SF)or other favorite sites.
Ngoc Mai does have a charm and it's worth dipping into some more. Also, if Ngu Binh can fine tune its menu over the next few months, it could turn out to be quite a treasure for this part of town.
Hung Ky gone? What a bummer! Just when I got to be well known to the lady owner. I particularly liked those oily fried shallots they had in a little jar on every table. I never found them at any other Vietnamese restaurant I have tried. If Hung Ky opens somewhere else I hope someone will let us know if they spot it.
re: Ruth Lafler
The pho listed on the menu include Pho Ga, Pho Ga Long Trung Non (chicken & young egg with rice noodle soup), Pho Tai (fresh sliced beef) pho tai nam (fresh sliced beef & cooked beef), pho tai nam gan (also tendon), pho nam gan sach (cooked beef & tripe), pho bo vien (beef balls) and pho tai bo vien (sliced beef, beef balls).
The Bun (vermicelli) menu includes bun oc (escargot, tomato & ginger), bun rieu oc (escargot, crab, shrimp & tomato), bun rieu. Prices are about $5.75 for a small and about $6.45 for a large.
Most of the patrons at Ngu Binh when I was there last week were eating soup and the kitchen seemed to be concentrating on soups until they upgrade the stove and refrigeration.
Many of these dishes seem familiar from the Hung Ky menu and also the Hue specialties that are on the Ngoc Mai (547 Hyde Street, San Francisco) menu.
Ngoc Mai, a restaurant that I'm becoming very fond of only after 2 visits, also has Banh Bot Loc and Banh Nam, as does Ngu Binh.
Maybe Vietnamese appetizers will be the next trend and I thought that I read somewhere that either Slanted Door or Bong Su has just added Banh Khot (shrimp mini-cake) to their menu.
Personally, I'd rather have Banh Khot for $5 or $6 in the Tenderloin than for some inflated price at Slanted Door.