Viet Crawl at San Jose Century Mall (report)
- Alice Patis
This past weekend 7 of us got together at Grand Century Mall in San Jose, some of us for the first time, others to see if past favorites were still good. We went to Pho Thien Long, Thanh Da Restaurant, and the deli/café next to Hai Thanh Supermarket. Below are the dishes we ordered at the first two places; I had to leave after that, so someone else will report on the banh mi at the deli/café. By the way, all 3 places are reported on in the Chowhound Guide Book so dont miss out on those good tips in the book!
At Pho Thien Long:
#38 Cha Ca La Vong, 2 orders
Grilled catfish, served on a metal plate over a small burner. Served with: rice vermicelli, green leaf lettuce, cucumber, cilantro, green & purple shiso, sesame rice cracker, and nuoc cham sauce.
#41 Lau Thien Long
Vietnamese hot pot with 2 broths (one mild, one slightly spicey), served on a gas burner. Comes with with cook-your-own prawns, squid, Basa (kind of flounder), thin-sliced beef flank, and the menu says chicken but we got mussels in our serving. Also with fresh mustard greens, napa cabbage, egg noodle, wide rice noodle, and a slightly sweetened soy dipping sauce.
Total came to $9 each.
At Thanh Da Restaurant:
#7 Chao (Plain Rice Porridge)
Note: The porridge in #1-8 on the Menu is the broth-based flavored kind. The porridge in #13 and #14 on the Menu is the water-based white kind, with a choice of 3 toppings from the list in the menu. We ordered the brothy kind, without any toppings (hence Plain).
#9 Goi Vit (Duck Salad)
Boiled duck (the Large order comes with a half duck), over thinly sliced purple and green cabbage and chopped rau ram herb. Served with ginger lime nuoc cham sauce.
#7 Long Doi (Pork Intestines)
This was a charcuterie plate that included thinly sliced pork stomach, intestines, sliced pork blood sausage and I might be missing something else. All boiled or steamed, not fried.
From the Specials on the wall: Com Bo Luc Lac (Rice Plate with Shaking Beef)
Flash fried cubes of beef and a few chopped bell peppers, served on a bed of lettuce, garnished with sliced tomato and cucumber, and served with a big scoop of rice.
Total came to $7 each, including a few drinks.
The Cha Ca is still top-notch in my book. Catfish did not taste muddy at all, plate of veggies was really generous, and having it on a mini grill means a nice char & it stayed hot. Extra points for sliced young papaya in the nuoc cham. Minor miss: sesame cracker instead of shrimp cracker, and it was crunchy hard. The menu says it serves 2, but I think thats only if youre not ordering anything else.
The Lau (hot pot) is a good version here. I really liked the spicy broth (it wasnt really spicy) over the plainer one, but both broths had a deep flavor that seemed sweet from meat bones. The beef was tender, even the slices that were cooked to fully done. The prawns were quite large. The fish was ok but I wouldve liked a different kind with less of a fish-taste.
I thought the beef in the Shaking Beef at Thanh Da is as good as Three Seasons, but not as good as Anise Café (in San Jose). I havent had this dish at Slanted Door or Tamarine. It was a very tender cut even though cooked to well done. The marinade tastes less complex than at Anise Café. The presentation is just ok (very anemic roma tomato slices). The serving seemed small but it seems thats the par anywhere for this dish. What I really loved was the rice. It looked like Hainanese rice, cooked in chicken broth, but there was a subtle taste of coconut. Grains were soft with a slight bite, a bit loose but not dry.
I also really liked the pork blood sausage, it had some fragrant herb in the sausage filling.
The goi vit was okay, but not as good as my last visit. There was even less rau ram (and I thought the last visit didnt have enough). The owner did say that next time, ask for lots of rau ram in the Goi Vit if you like it. The duck is still tender but is it just me, or was the duck a scrawny one (it had fat, but hardly much meat). Plus there was a watery pool of liquid under all the cabbage that didnt seem like it was supposed to be there. And the ginger lime sauce didnt seem to have as much zing as before.
Hopefully others will chime in with their opinions and maybe photos!
I agree with pretty much everything you said, especially that the duck was scrawny and the salad needed more herbs. I also thought the porridge was too salty.
I actually thought the "shaking beef" (one of the hand-written specials on the wall as "com bo luc lac") was a more generous serving than I've seen before, as there seemed to be plenty for all seven of us to taste. Although I liked the atmosphere, with the tatami booths left over from its prior incarnation as a Japanese restaurant, I wasn't really impressed by the food and I'm not sure I'd go back.
I'd never had hot pot before, and I think I could be a convert. I particularly enjoyed the rice noodles in the spicier broth with the mustard greens, which to me was everything I love about Vietnamese food: complex flavors and yet very light and clean. The cha ca is an old favorite (the third time I've had it here), and especially delicious (as Dave Feldman pointed out at Feldmanfest) if you let the scallions char and caramelize on the brazier for a bit. In contrast to Thanh Da, everything I've ever had at Pho Thien Long has been delicious and an exemplary version. If we could combine the food there with the atmosphere at Thanh Da, it would be among the top Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area.
On my next foray in the mall, I think I want to try the banh xeo from the food court, which always look great.
Finally, I'm perpetually surprised by how few non-Asians seem to know about this place. Once again, the clientele was at least 95 percent Asian (during our whole time at the mall I think I saw two other "Caucasians" besides the three in our group and a few Latinos). Apparently the word just hasn't gotten out into the wider community about the quality and quantity of food available.
I forgot to add: there is a new restaurant under construction to the left of Pho Thien Long, called Chit Chat: Lang Nuong Restaurant. I think that translates to "Grill Village". The tables look like they have grills built into the middle and there are huge hoods for venting air. My guess is it's less than a month away from completion.
Korean BBQ Vietnamese style...Mmmm...
I'm a bit confused as to which mall/strip mall this is. Are we talking about the shopping area on Story and McLaughlin, which contains a Dynasty Restaurant, a big indoor mall, and a smaller outdoor strip mall?
If so, I'm there frequently, though I have yet to eat anywhere but Tay Ho and a smoothie/tapioca pearls fruit drink shop (get the passion fruit!). On reading the OP more closely, I believe it is the same place and I'm recognizing the names of some of the restaurants. Yay, Chowhounds go to my lunch hangout! I'm one of those only non-Asians you see there!
BTW, that supermarket in the corner sells the only pineapples which approach the quality of those I ate in Hawaii. It's the only place I'll buy 'em.
re: teela brown
Yes, that's it -- the mall "complex" (indoor mall combined with strip mall) at Story and McLaughlin.
Thanks for the tip about the pineapples at the market -- next time I'll have to check them out. I bought some wonderful small watermelons (delicia, I think they were called -- crisp and sweet, and a perfect size for about four servings) and cherries there this weekend.
Great write up, Alice! Thanks for organizing this Viet crawl. Not only did I realize that I need to come to SJ more often for my Viet fix, but that I also need to brush up on my pathetic Viet language skills (or lack thereof). This was my first time to this mall, and I def. want to return since I sensed lots of chowish potential in the area. I've attached a few photos below...two from Thanh Da and one of my banh mi from the bakery (believe it's called Saigon Bakery, right?). I missed a shot of the chao and don't have pics from Pho Thien Long, but maybe another hound does. My general impressions:
PHO THIEN LONG
Cha ca smelled wonderful when brought sizzling to the table. The scents of turmeric, scallions, and dill on the hot plate were intoxicating. Catfish was fresh and plump, very delicate flavored and, like Alice said, not muddy at all. Accessories plate of herbs and bun (vermicelli noodles) was generous and it was fun to build your own bowl of goodies. I really savored my first bites since they transported me back to Hanoi, when I last had this 2+ years ago.
While I enjoyed the dish for what is was, I have to say that it didn't match up to what I remember of cha ca in Hanoi. This version wasn't as caramelized and the overall flavors seemed more muted. In particular, I remember having something like essence of bergamot added to our nuoc cham in Vietnam, which lended an unusual floral quality to the dish. I think everyone should try this dish at least once, and this has spurred me to seek out other cha ca in San Jose for comparison.
BTW, Alice, was the sesame cracker for the cha ca or hotpot? On our end of the table, we broke up pieces and steeped them in our broth to soften before eating. I liked it this way, but agree that shrimp would have been better.
The hotpot (lau) was a nice complement to cha ca, although I wished they were more generous w/ the broth. I enjoyed the squid, beef, and mustard greens alot and found the mussel to be kind of gritty. I preferred the "spicy" broth as it slightly reminded me of my mom's hot and sour soups (canh chua), although again, I found myself wanting more pronounced flavors. Perhaps my mom's southern-style of cooking has shaped these expectations. We did have lau in the central seaside town of Nha Trang when I visited Vietnam, and I remember the broth having more acidity and tomato flavor. If one likes hotpot in general and the do-it-yourself method of eating, then one should try lau.
In sum, Pho Thien Long uses good quality ingredients, but honestly, neither of the dishes really bowled me over or struck a food memory chord for me. It was very crowded w/ many Viet people, so others obviously like it. I do want to return to try their pho (since it's in their name, after all) and bun bo hue. Anyone try these there before?
Unlike PTL, Thanh Da was like a little Zen retreat w/ our own private tatami booth. My favorite thing was the blood sausage w/ its dark mysterious color and heavy spicing, which I'm guessing was anise and cloves. I could take or leave the rest of the intestine platter though. I also really enjoyed the porridge and rice that came w/ the shaking beef. Unlike Ruth, I didn't find the porridge too salty at all. It looked so unassuming and plain, but the broth was really striking IMO...clean, rich but not heavy. The mound of rice looked plain too, but was wonderfully enhanced by the fatty chicken broth. The fat gave the rice a very pleasant silkiness.
I was least impressed w/ the duck salad. The duck itself had minimal flavor and my pieces had alot of bone and little meat. The cabbage slaw underneath was uninspired and didn't really meld together w/ the duck. The shaking beef was very tender, but lacked complexity and balance in flavor IMO, as it was on the sweetish side.
I did order the salty lemon drink (chanh muoi) and really enjoyed it. It wasn't as excessively salty as others I've had, but struck the perfect balance and was very refreshing. I def. want to return to Thanh Da for the sausage and to sample more chao.
Two of us went in on three banh mi, so w/ their buy two get one free deal we paid $1/banh mi. I got two of the #1 which is basically the house combo. Smear of pate and I believe there was a long slice each of roast pork and what I call Viet bologna. Sorry for my vagueness, but I was distracted and am not a banh mi expert. I ordered the veggies (carrot, daikon, cilantro, jalapeno) on the side since we would eat them for dinner that night.
Realized it's been AGES since I've eaten banh mi. While I like it, it's not one of my favorite Viet foods as I associate it more w/ a snack or roadtrip eats. The bread was fresh and had that nice crunch. Meats were tasty but too sparse IMO, as they became lost in the pillowy dough. I'd rather pay 50 cents more for another slice of each meat. Veggies were fine, but weren't as vinegary as I like and lacked the refreshing cucumber.
I noticed they had two kinds of baguette, one was long and skinny and the other was wide and puffy like mine. They didn't give me a choice, so I think the bread used depends on the filling. The hound that got the thit nuong banh mi got the thinner baguette, so I'm going to try that next time. This place has lots of other goodies, and I really want to return to try their other banh mi, cha gio, pate chaud, and sticky rice w/ sausage.
Sorry for the length of this, but just wanted to quickly add that I got a medium-sized claypot at the houseware store for $8 and will make fish or meat in claypot soon. The supermarket also had some great produce and meat but I passed on buying anything. Can't wait to return to this airy and inviting mall!
re: Ruth Lafler
Aha! Thanks so much, Ruth. That sandwich board seemed to have so many options, and I wasn't feeling patient or observant at the time so just went w/ the #1. The thit nuong that I ordered for the other hound was something like #16, IIRC. Will def. stick w/ the baguette next time, as I think the slimmer bread won't overwhelm the fillings so much.
re: Ruth Lafler
We have been coming here on and off for a few years. If I remember correctly number 1-15 are rolls and 16-30 are baguettes.
At one time I was tasting one new one each time I came to buy sandwiches and had tried most of them when they add 15 more.
I was told by my former co worker the thing they miss most about me being gone no one goes to pick sandwiches for everyone. Says it all.
Coincidentally, the San Jose Mercury made a trip to the Grand Century Mall this week. I attach a link to their discussion of the place, and note that the juice and sugar cane squeezing place pictured is the same shop where I buy my tropical fruit tapioca pearl smoothies.