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.
Yesterday mid-afternoon I was near the Tenderloin and had a chance to try some more appetizers at Ngoc Mai at 547 Hyde. I even found a free parking space only a few doors down
I ordered Banh Bot Loc, "Shrimp & Pork over Rice Paste," ($4), #17 on the laminated menu but #15 on the paper take-out menu. Also ordered Banh Beo, "Fried Shrimp and Bean Rice Paste," ($3.50), #24 on the laminated menu or #22 on the paper menu.
Banh Bot Loc - The plate came with four tube-shapes wrapped in banana leaf. After unwrapping the leaf, I found a translucent rice paste about 3 1/2" long stuffed with non-fatty pork bits and some shrimp. The aroma was slightly earthy, maybe picked up from the banana leaf. The taste had a slight, mild spice to it which I couldn't identify but may have been anise. I went through all four tubes thinking to myself that this is pretty extraordinary stuff for $4 and that it is only a matter of time before Bong Su or Slanted door picks up on something like this for twice the price. I wish that I had had a digital camera with me.
Banh Beo - A single plate about 6" in diameter with a layer of thin rice cake covering most of the plate with shredded fried shrimp, flecks of chopped green onion and what looked-like crumbles of egg yolk on top. There was a fish sauce with jalapenos for dipping. The plate came with a spoon and fork, maybe suggesting that the dish is easier to handle using something other than just chopsticks. When I paid the bill, I asked what the yellow crumbles were and was told that they were yellow bean. A nicely done appetizer and maybe others can compare it to the Banh Beo Chen available a few blocks away at Ngu Binh at 337 Jones (former site of Hung Ky).
After 3 visits to this place, it seems to me and my novice palate that it might be quite a gem and the next time I go back I want to try a specialty from Hue city, Banh Uot Tom Chau (#6 on paper menu- Flour Cake Roll with Fried Shrimp, $5) and some of the seafood entrees such as deep fried catfish or pompano ($8?) or claypot shrimp. Another order of Banh Khot, shrimp mini-crepe in a fried shell, is also in order.
SF, CA 94109
Mon-At 10 am - 6 pm
Sunday 10 am - 3 pm
earlier in the week i ate a bowl of bun bo hue on clement that i thought was ok, but wanted to seek out better versions. today i woke up early (for me) and went down to ngoc mai because i had read on chowhound about their hue specials.
i enjoyed this bowl very much. soup was mildly spicy. i actually added a bit more chili flakes in oil, but i didn't want it to be incediary. this was about 10:30 in the morning. came with a plate of sprouts and mint, with a bit of cilantro. i asked for dipping saucer of shrimp paste, as i was tipped off to do by melanie wong (thanks). it did do something to the thingly sliced pork and beef, which otherwise could've tasted a bit bland. i also whisked a little bit into the soup to dissolve for a tiny bit of pungency. there were a few smallish chunks of pig's blood, which i don't really care for, and a big sawed off bony chunk of pig trotter/hock. just in case you forgot what this was made out of....
the soup had a meaty but bright flavor, from the lime and lemongrass, i suppose. i enjoyed it very much, and felt energized for sometime afterwards. although that could have been the multiple steepings of oolong i tried in chinatown afterwards. both of which together probably accounted for my running home from BART with a screaming bladder.
so i think i still have bun bo hue on the brain and may need to try a few more versions. it's a pity that san jose is so inconvenient. but if i can't find other versions i like, i'm more than happy with this one at ngoc mai.
Mangosteen on Larkin also has a pretty good version of Bun Bo Hue. (Definitely better than their pho.) Nice, clear broth. I can't remember if it has the coagulated blood (which I actually really enjoy)--but, it did have shredded, curly banana? leaf in addition to the sprouts and herbs, which is hard to find, and adds another dimension of texture and a mild flavor.