bun rieu, banh khot @ ngoc mai
today spent over an hour researching oakland korean joints as per the recent soup and kimchi thread, but suddenly changed my mind and headed over to the tenderloin for some vietnamese instead.
i ordered the bun rieu, a noodle soup which came with thin rice vermicelli in a crab-infused broth with tomato and fried tofu. there wasn't any actual crab meat in the dish, but i believe that crab roe/innards are mixed with beaten egg and drizzled into the broth, not unlike a chinese egg flower soup. the soup tasted strongly of shellfish, at any rate. there were thin squares of fried tofu, quartered tomatoes, cubes of pork blood (my personal jury is still deliberating on this stuff. it doesn't taste bad, but it doesn't really...taste like much of anything), garnished with cilantro and green onions. it came with a plate of the freshest mung bean sprouts i've had in a long time. these were shorter, plump, pristine and uniformly white, crunchy and juicy.
i've had this dish here once before, and i liked it better then. today the broth had a pungent shellfish flavor, which i liked, but it was oddly sweet. overly sweet. i also think that i remember this being served with the thicker, round rice noodles used in bun bo hue. i've also had bun rieu at two other places, and both times, there were noticeable bits of ground up crab...roe? fat? innards..not the actual white leg or lump meat, but a darker meatiness with intense flavor.
i also ordered the banh khot, little saucer-like fritters of a deep yellow, coconut flavored batter similar to that used in the more well known vietnamese crepe, banh xeo. each one was topped with a single prawn and served with a nuoc cham dipping sauce and, again, super fresh lettuce leaves and herbs. mint and...a long leafed herb that i can't identify. iv'e had this once before, after reading an older post from melanie wong (sorry, i haven't gotten the hang of linking posts and locations and i'm too tired to figure it out). the last time i had the banh khot, they were crunchy but light, with a still tender, soft center. unfortunately, this batch was fried beyond hope, so that the little cups had the texture of stale commercial pork rinds. somehow, the prawns adorning each banh khot were perfectly cooked, and that, plus the stunning freshness of the herbs and lettuce redeemed the dish a bit.
the woman serving was extremely friendly, and i've had good food here before. i'm assuming it was an off day, and i'm not writing this tiny, unique little restaurant off. i liked their bun bo hue a lot the last time i tried it.
again sorry for no link but it's on hyde off geary.
Thanks for your report. A couple weeks ago when I went to Ngoc Mai I also had the bun rieu. It had been awhile since my previous visit there, and I noticed that in the interim they had started to carry bun oc, with the water snails. I asked about oc several times in the past, and always remembered them not having any. So this time I had bun rieu oc. I agree with you on the sweet broth, but the broth was very shifty -- sometimes it was sweet, other times nicely pungent, but a great deal of the time it was thinner and more watery than I would've liked -- all in the same bowl of soup. All in all, I was hoping for a more robust broth, but even before, I thought Ngoc Mai's broths were fairly thin. The oc were also horridly tough, and should have been considerably more tender.
They never used to put the cubes of pork blood in there either, so that was a very nice surprise :-)
Sorry to hear the banh khot weren't up to the usual. I hadn't been to Ngoc Mai in quite awhile before this last visit, and I was hoping maybe it was just an off day too. It sounds like it will take a couple more visits to figure it out.