Another Vung Tau (San Jose) Chowdown report
Seven hounds met at the original but very nicely remodeled Vung Tau for yet another chowdown. We ordered 8 dishes, listed below. I'll let others chime in before I post my review, but I thought everything was good to excellent, except for one miss. I think the service is indeed greatly improved since before the remodel. Plus the dirty 70s diner look is completely gone; it really does look as nice as the photos on their website(www.vungtaurestaurant.com).
What we had:
08. Hû Tieu (Noodle Soup) Bà Nam Sadéc - Jumbo prawns, crab & lean pork loin $7.50 - served with a shrimp fritter
15. Cháo Cá Giò Heo - Rice porridge soup w/ pork hock & fish $7.50
72. GÕi Cá SÓng - Lime cured red snapper mixed w/ banana blossom, celery & onions $11.95
33. Bánh HÕi Chåo Tôm - Steamed rice vermicelli w/ ground prawns skewered on sugar cane sticks & grilled. Served w/ mixed vegetables. $11.95
107. Cua Rang Me - Crab wok tossed w/ tamarind, garlic & onions. $23.95
37. Bánh Dap (Tôm, Heo, Bò) - Rice flour rolled filled w/ grilled pork, beef or Jumbo prawns. Served w/ mixed vegetables $10.50
That's what it's called and described on the menu. But what we ate was a dish with 2 components: the rice flour "crepes" with a thin filling of sesame rice crackers; and since we chose beef, piled on top were grilled beef rolls (slices of beef round, wrapped around julienned onions and grilled, which is #106 on the menu).
84. Suon Rim Man - Short ribs caramelized w/ garlic, fish sauce & black pepper served in an earth pot $9.50
(actually it was served on a nice white plate, not a clay pot
117. Muc Rang MuÓi - Calamari breaded w/ rice flour & wok tossed w/ garlic, salt & onions $10.50 (similar to "Salt and Pepper Squid" and it was pieces from calamari steaks, not rings)
Hopefully Carb Lover will post the photos soon.
I am soooo glad I got to meet new hounds and see familiar faces. Plus the donuts Nathan and Carb Lover offered afterwards were a heavenly treat! The food was great but the company even nicer!
Ok, I'm back to elaborate on my thoughts. While the wok-fried tamarind crab was amazing and finger-lickin' good (oh so good), my favorite dish was #37 banh dap. Our nice waitress last time recommended this dish, and I'm so glad she did since it didn't stand out on the menu. I was expecting the beef to be inside the rice flour roll, but I liked how the grilled meat was on top. Once I made my little lettuce "burrito", added some crunchy carrot and crisp cucumber, and dipped into nuoc cham, my mouth was oh so happy. The textural contrasts made this so fun to eat, and the various flavors harmonized beautifully. I dove in for seconds...
The dredged and fried calamari were also highly addictive!! They came out nice and hot and the umami-inducing combination of salt, sugar, garlic powder, and chile crackled when I bit into it. Delicious and generously portioned.
I was most disappointed by the pork short ribs and chao (rice porridge). Both weren't cooked properly and lacked depth and complexity. While I enjoyed the red snapper salad enough, the texture of the fish was chewy (I think it's naturally this way and pieces were cut too large) and the dressing overpowering. I wouldn't order it again given the strength of other salads.
I feel like some summary across my 3 lunches is in order, and probably the most pertinent is to summarize my standout dishes so far that I wouldn't hesitate to order again:
34. Banh hoi nem: steamed rice vermicelli squares w/ pork meat balls. (sampled independent of a chowdown lunch)
37. Banh dap: rice flour roll filled w/ sesame rice cracker w/ choice of meat (beef, in our case).
66. Goi du du bo kho: green papaya salad w/ dried sesame beef and basil.
67. Goi ngo sen thom thit: lotus root salad w/ shrimp and pork loin.
83. Thit kho tau dua gia: slow-cooked pork belly w/ hard-cooked egg and pickled veggies.
107. Cua rang me: wok-tossed crab w/ tamarind, garlic, and onions.
117. Muc rang muoi: breaded and fried calamari.
There are many dishes that I've liked, and it's impressive that the kitchen can churn out good to great food for such an ambitious menu. After eating there 5 times since this summer, I really feel like I have a good sense of Vung Tau's cooking style and essence. There is a certain pride and elegance that I feel from the food quality, preparation, and presentation. It has inspired me to create Vietnamese dishes at home and made me feel closer to a birth country that I am really just beginning to know. Thanks to my lunch mates for being a part of this...
re: Carb Lover
Thank you so very much for your fabulous report! My boyfriend and I live in Fremont and love going to Vung Tau II in Milpitas and have always considered it one of our favorite local restaurants (along with Kioku's sushi).
However, the only things that we knew to order were the "rice noodle bowls" with beef or shrimp (always marinated and grilled to savory/sweet perfection) and the "fresh spring rolls" (I'm surprised you haven't reported on these. Or did I miss it? Fried spring rolls are a dime a dozen as far as I'm concerned, while fresh spring rolls served with peanut sauce are a gift sent down to us from the heavens!)
I'm the more experimental of the two of us, so I'd try different things, but nothing ever was as satisfying nor had the wonderful complexity of flavor as the Bun dishes. So, I'd look down at my dish with a vaguely disapointed feeling and then look across the table at my boyfriend happily chomping away at our "old favorite." Needless to say, after a few tries, the urge for experimentation faded away. But man lives not on two dishes alone and your report once again inspired me! We visited VT II last night and tried some of the dishes you suggested and had a wonderful time.
From the pictures you post, I have the feeling that Vung Tau II is more informal than it's predecessor, with a smaller budget for plateware and less thought towards a pretty presentation. I don't know if this indicates, as Melanie has said of ramen, a less disciplined approach that may overlap into the flavor of the food. I'll have to make the trek to the original San Jose establishment and taste for myself!
BTW, if you are in an especially devil-may-care mood, you can try Vung Tau's avocado shake. Bright green with a fluffy consistency and a very sweet taste, there's no hint of avocado flavor, but rather makes one think this is what it might be like to have a marshmallow milkshake. I've heard that these are amazingly good with chocolate sauce, but alas, Vung Tau doesn't offer that option, so I can't report. Honestly, I just had to try it because I was amazed there really was such a thing in the first place as an "avocado shake." :)
re: Carb Lover
So I'm going to add to this aging post to get a more recent perspective on Vung Tau I, one of my sentimental favorites for Vietnamese food:
Today 3 of us met to feed the craving for Vietnamese food. I remembered dishes we liked there but decided I needed some guidance. So turning to the posts from Alice Patis and Carb Lover, I made some notes of dishes to try. Some familiar, some I don't remember having, but I'm up there too so I must have enjoyed them before.
As we were only 3, we had to exert some self control to keep from over ordering...
So we had:
#05 - Banh Khot - always a favorite for me. These were delicious with the flavor of coconut milk very evident. Loved them as in the past. Could eat a whole order of them by myself....
#67 - Goi Ngo Sen Tom Thit aka Lotus root w/shrimp, lean pork loin, & mint with fish sauce dressing - this is served with large crispy shrimp chips. Again a sentimental choice for me: I had it for the first time at Vung Tau many years ago. Love the various textures of pickled baby lotus roots, micro thin slices of red onion, steamed shrimp, a bit of crispy shallots and thin slices of pork loin with what looked and tasted like rau ram rather than what I think of as "mint" and the shrimp chips.
#37 Banh Dap (choice of beef, grilled pork or jumbo prawns) Described on the menu as "Rice flour rolled filled w/grilled pork, beef or jumbo prawns, Served w/mixed vegetables". I believe this was one of the favorites of the day. We opted for the grilled pork which was served over squares of rice noodle wrapper filled with crisp sesame rice crackers with the usual salad plate of herbs and lettuce for wrapping with another fish sauce dressing. Another symphony of flavors and textures.
#118 Muc Rang Muoi - Calamari breaded w/rice flour & wok tossed w/garlic, salt & onions. This dish paled somewhat with it's quieter flavors after the savoriness of the dishes that came before. It is cut from the large calamari and we all agreed we'd rather have the smaller ones with tentacles included. There were slices of jalapeno and pieces of slightly cooked scallion. It was the Viet take on salt and pepper calamari. Interestingly, some left overs of this dish came home with me and a couple of hours later, while cold, it is still crispy and not greasy at all. While perhaps a least favorite dish, it wasn't bad.
Craving something sweet at this point, we split a #137 Che Dau Xanh Thach - Sweetened mung beans, shredded tapioca & coconut milk with shaved ice. This had just the right amount of sweetness to counter balance the savory. The shredded tapioca had the consistency of gummy bears in 1/2" x 2"strips in green, purple and white. For me, it was just right.
We had a great waiter who told us about the dishes and even helped us with how to correctly pronounce the names of the dishes we had. The dishes were paced as we wanted them and overall it was a good experience.
So some random thoughts on Vung Tau I: When we first visited many years years ago we fell in love with this food. After the remodel it looked so much nicer. It was always crowded with a lot of young people at lunch eating bowls of soup and having animated conversations. Now the prices have gone up considerably (the tamarind prawns are $29.50). The lunch crowd is much older, it's much quieter and it was never full the whole time we were there. So time marches on... The menu is still interesting to me - still haven't tried many items so will have to get back soon.
Vung Tau Restaurant
535 E Santa Clara St, San Jose, CA 95112
These Vung Tau chowdowns are relished with great gusto - and we are rewarded with good company, good food - and, now...donuts. Thank you to Carb Lover and Nathan for their superb shopping skills - and, donuts from Lou's Living Donut Museum with the "seasonal favorite - the pumpkin donut" - Yum! Thank you!
The salads at Vung Tau always hit the mark for me, with balanced flavors and crisp textures. The Tamarind Crab was amazing - with the spicy sweetness seeping into the meatiness of the crab. #37 did not disappoint the lettuce-wrapped goodness of the beef rolls and noodles was burrito-sized with all the fresh condiment additions. Overall, this was a very happy tasting of Vung Tau's menu.
I think the food has been well described in the first few posts.
The crab was clearly the star, good prep, well executed and of course it was crab! The fish was chewy but the rest of the salad was good- perhaps the cured beef salad would be better since the beef flavor might stand out a bit more against the rest of the ingredients. Still the salads are a strong point here. I also liked the beef rolls with rice noodle and cracker. Good flavors and an interesting range of textures.
I enjoyed the soup (though these items are a bit tough to share). The meat topping seemed fairly generous but the fritter was only ok. I liked the version of this soup at Cao Nguyen better. And the shrimp on sugar cane were very pretty but just did not stand out among the other dishes. My current fave of this dish is the bun with shrimp on cane + pork meatballs at Com Tam Thanh. Its been a while so I need to get back for a retry since I recall the dish having a more pronounced flavor while also having a more tender texture and juicier cane.
Still a good event and Vung Tau has consistently delivered good to excellent food over our 3 visits.
This was my favorite lunch so far at Vung Tau. Alice and Pia's descriptions of the dishes are right on and it would be redundant for me to add much other than to say just how much I enjoyed everything and everyone! If I had to pick a favorite from today's lineup, the crab would be #1. The rankings for me would continue with the beef rolls/rice noodle #2, the calamari #3, the noodle soup #4 (I'd like to have a whole bowl of that one day soon...), the fish salad #5 (only because the pieces of fish were strangely tough; but the wonderful fresh flavors were outstanding), #6 the shrimp on fresh sugar cane; the shrimp was bland but the pieces of sugar cane were so juicy and flavorful, the porridge did seem very bland even though there was an ample amount of black pepper; probably if we didn't have other highly flavored dishes it would have been better and last place went to the pork short ribs (I was expecting beef) - these as mentioned by Pia (I think) would have been better if they'd had a longer cooking time and the juices would have cooked down more. All in all, a great meal and great company! Thanks again to Tran for keeping our little lunch group going.
I was lucky enough to be at this particular chowdown. There really is nothing like sitting down to a meal a few good people with open minds, healthy appetites, and appreciative palates.
I started with the intense flavors of the lime-cured fish salad, Goi Ca Song (#72): crunchy fresh veggies with herbs and jalapeno slices in a sweet-citrus-fish sauce dressing. The "snapper" was very fresh, but poorly sliced, leaving it oddly tough and stringy. Good, but the lotus root salad from an earlier visit was better, I think.
The soup, Hu Tieu (#8) had excellent flavor, rich broth and good noodles, although it was lukewarm by the time we got around to it. (The perils of good conversation.) I would certainly order this again. (And not share it.)
Rice porridge, Chao Ca Gio Heo (#15) looked tempting, but was quite bland, despite the wealth of ingredients floating around.
Banh Hoi Chao Tom, (#33), the minced shrimp on sugarcane was of good quality and nice texture, but it paled, flavorwise, in comparison with most of the other dishes.
The grilled beef rolls with filled rice flour crepes Banh Dap Bo (#37), were rather difficult to roll up in lettuce leaves with the accompanying herbs and dipping sauce, but they rewarded my effort with a complexity of flavors and variety of textures found in few dishes. I'd order this again, too, though I'd be equally tempted by the lemongrass beef with banh hoi.
The deep-fried breaded calamari cutlets, Muc Rang Moi (#117), dusted with garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and chili, had just the right amount of resistance to the bite, and a lot of intriguing flavors.
Suon Rim Man (#84), was one of those dishes that missed its potential greatness. If the rib chunks had been cooked longer, they would have been tender and the sauce would have had a chance for thicken and caramelize further.
The tamarind crab, Cua Rang Me (#107) was eaten last, by some tacit agreement, or chowhound mind-meld. I guess we wanted to wait until we had tasted everything else before getting up to our elbows in crab debris. Which we did with gusto. Delicious preparation: subtly smoky, sweet-sour, and garlicky, the sauce enhanced the sweetness of the crab. This crab inspired thoughts of organizing a Bay Area Crab Hunt. . .
A wonderful lunch enjoyed in great company! The next one can't come too soon. Thank you very much to Carb Lover and Alice for organizing and ordering!
Thanks for getting the report rolling, Alice, and for typing up the proper Vietnamese names for dishes we enjoyed. I had such a wonderful time w/ our lunch group, and the food continues to delight and surprise. I always leave there full and happy, and a few dishes were truly unique and outstanding! I haven't gotten bored yet, and as Cynthia expressed, I'm starting to really feel at home there.
I'm sorry that I don't have the time or mindset to share more detailed thoughts right now (am exhausted and about to turn in for the night), but I wanted to check in and at least post photos to bring the meal to life and color. My photos didn't turn out as well as I would have liked, but my excuse is that the food was a MAJOR distraction! I had to brighten many shots, so the color of the food may look a bit unnatural. I will weigh in w/ my impressions when I get the first chance! Hope others will too...
A minor correction: below is the link to our last lunch in October.