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Educate me about Vietnamese food

We are going to Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant. This is my DD's favorite restaurant, and it's her birthday today. She has eaten there many time. I went once, but whatever i ordered wasn't what I expected. I do NOT know much about Vietnamese cuisine, so please educate me a bit. I am not crazy about fish, so I am looking for something that doesn't have a lot of fish sauce in it, unless you can tell me that it won't taste fishy. I know Pho is soup, but what is Bun? I think that is what I had last time, but There were so many noodles. I know there are all kind of other dishes with odd names, but what are they? What would you recommend? I love spicy food, but my stomach doesn't, so I have to keep it on the milder side.

Here is a link to Mai's. http://www.maisrestauranttx.com/

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  1. I think Bun (rice noodle vermicelli) makes a nice intro to Vietnamese food. Not adventurous, but a nice variety of fresh ingredients. Basically, it is noodles with cilantro, lettuce, carrots, mint, peanuts, cucumber, and various meats. The sauce (usually rice wine vinegar, a small amount of fish sauce, and a little chili sauce) comes on the side, so you can control how much you want. I dump it all in as it is not too spicy or "fishy". Personally, I go for the bun with grilled pork and a Vietnamese egg roll- usually called Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio

    2 Replies
    1. re: Honey Bee

      Thanks! That looks good to me, but what if I want to be a bit adventurous?

      1. re: danhole

        I usually either eat the bun, a chicken or pork claypot (think something along the line of a stew), bahn mi (sandwich) or shaken beef served with crushed rice. That is the extent of my Vietnamese food experience, but I have enjoyed all of those dishes.

    2. Pho is so much more than soup! It's the most fragrant, delicious beef broth when it's made properly and lovingly. It's poured into a large bowl to which rice noodles and whatever meat you choose (I like Pho Ga with chicken). They usually add sliced onions and sometimes peppers to the brothers and then give you a plate piled high with basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, jalapenos and lime wedges. You add what you want and then give it a squirt of whatever kind of hot sauce they have on the table, but add it sparingly because, like I said, you'll really want to taste the broth.

      5 Replies
      1. re: southernitalian


        I didn't mean to insult Pho, I just had hear it was soup, and I know it comes with "add-ins" and it sounds interesting. I have never tried it, and my DD says she thinks it's "yucky", but her Vietnamese girlfriend always has that at this place. I just have no reference to go by. I just wish her friend could go with us! (But she is out of town.)

        I am looking at the menu, trying to figure out what to try and am a bit lost. There are sooo many choices, and it's hard for me to make up my mind anyway (lol) so I am trying to get a head start. I don't see any sandwiches, or shaken beef, and only one clay pot that has oyster sauce - it that fishy? I am leaning towards this:
        Ga xoi mo xoi chien
        Rotisserie chicken served with two patties of fried sweet rice

        Is that too americanized? I want to eat something new and exciting.

        Thanks for all the input.

        1. re: danhole

          For something new, and also something distinctly Vietnamese, you should definitely try the pho. I know--soup usually sounds boring to me too, at least as a full meal. But good pho is not what we Americans think of when we think of soup.

          Think of it as a full meal of meat, noodles, and veggies, just immersed in the most flavorful broth you've ever had.

          P.S. - If you don't like extra chewy textures, make sure to ask for no tendon and tripe in the pho, as these are common ingredients (or simply order an option without them).

          1. re: Discoethan

            I have read that it is almost an art form getting the pho just right. It said something along the lines of putting in some ingredients first, and adding some at the end. I will give it a try. I'm game for anything at least once!

            1. re: Discoethan

              Pho Tai would be a great selection. It should consist of thin slices of raw lean beef that is cooked by the soup. If that doesn't appeal to you, order it with cooked beef.

              1. re: raytamsgv

                Oh, no cooked beef. That sounds good! I like it rare.

        2. There are many different components to Vietnamese food. One of the most interesting aspects is the mixture of raw vegetables with cooked food in the same bite.

          For example, classic Cha gio (usually called imperial roll) is comprised of small rolls (similar to egg rolls) and served with some huge pieces of lettuce leaves, pickled veggies, herb leaves, and rice vermicelli. You rip out an appropriate size of a lettuce leaf, put some vermicelli on it, put the cha gio on it, and top it off with the pickled veggies and some herb leaves (no stem). Then you wrap it up, dip it in the sauce, and eat.

          The fish sauce (nuoc mum) is very pungent and is usually diluted with lime, sugar, and water. It's not all that fishy, but it has a very strong taste. If used in cooking, it is often difficult to separate from the other flavors.

          Most Vietnamese restaurants will serve more of a fast-food type of menu: rice (com) or vermicelli (bun) with grilled meats and vegetables. Sometimes, they have broken rice, which is exactly as its name implies: partial grains of rice. Bun can be served dry in the place of rice, or they can be served wet in soups.

          There is also mi, which are egg noodles. Hu Tieu are wide, white rice noodles. Both are typically served in soups.

          Bahn Mi is French bread (typically found in sandwiches)

          Bahn Xeo is a half-folded crepe typically filled with meat, veggies, and bean sprouts.

          Pho is a story in itself!

          If you want more of a home-style or formal dinner, try stuff like Ca/Thit Kho To, which is catfish/pork in salted, carmelized sauce. Other such dishes would include Canh Chua Tom (sweet and sour shrimp) or Tom Rang Muoi (stir-fried shrmip with salt and pepper). These dishes are meant to be eaten family-style.

          I don't know much about Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant except from the website you listed. It looks like some of the dishes have a significant Chinese influence, but that isn't too surprising. On the other hand, some of the dishes look very Vietnamese, especially in the "Family Dinner" section of the menu.

          Here's my quick description of Vietnamese food: http://www.geocities.com/raytamsgv/vi...

          1 Reply
          1. A couple of things that are pretty safe for beginners are, as mentioned, the noodle plates (grilled pork or beef w/eggroll is a good combo) or just go for a bunch of appetizers. Shrimp on sugar cane (which you wrap up in lettuce with basil, mint, noodles and other goodies, then dip in sauce) is messy but delicious. Vietnamese pancakes, crispy rice flour cakes stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, is another version.

            Virtually anything that features grilled pork, beef or chicken will be seasoned, but not spicy. Most Vietnamese food is meat to be spiced by the diner (hence all the bottles of hot sauce, crushed chili, vinegar, chopped jalepenos, etc., usually at the table).

            Pho is a good choice, but watch out for tripe and some other funky beef parts, if those bother you.

            Generally, the noodle dishes are what the menu says: just plain rice noodles with grilled meat, some peanuts and salad. Pour the sauce over it and mix it up and eat.

            Fish sauce, by itself, can be very fishy. However, it's generally served mixed with vinegar, sugar and garlic, and it tastes sweet, not fishy. Just don't attempt it plain until you get used to the flavor.

            Looking at the menu, you're pretty safe with all the bun dishes. Just pick the combo that looks best to you. I love the way Vietnamese beef and pork are grilled; sort of semi-charred and very sweet and chewy.

            From what you said about your taste, avoid the catfish.

            BTW, very little Vietnamese food has fish sauce in it. It is used as a marinade or glaze sometimes, but mainly you add it to your food yourself.

            1. Having read the other posts, I tend to agree on the choices, but like in a "real" Chinese restaurant, I have never had Vietnamese food that was not shared except for things like pho or bun (individual soup or noodle bowl) That it the pleasure of the experience. Bunch of people around the table mixing and matching with the always present "table salad" of lettuce leaves, herbs, bean sprouts, maybe onions, chilis, etc. Looking at your post, you have eaten by now, so please report back.

              1. Very tasty dinner! The menu was updated from the website, but I had my mind made up, pretty much so! Now you have to realize that my DH is so picky that he is the freak that goes to the chinese buffet and gets chicken wings and french fries, and that's about it, so usually we don't take him to places like this. Since it was a birthday celebration, and since my DD has a 5 yr. old boy and a 20 mos. girl, she figured he would eat what they ate, and she was right. There were 5 adults and the 2 children.

                We started with an order of 4 BBQ pork spring rolls, and 4 grilled chicken spring rolls. Those were gone in a minute. My DH and GS didn't have any, but the baby ate one all by herself! She loved the peanut sauce for dipping. The DH and GS had the Bun Thit Nuong (BBQ pork vermicelli) without all the extras, so it was just meat and noodles. There was an order of General Tso's Chicken, Pepper steak, Pork fried rice, Bo Luc Lac (garlic beef), and Ga Luc Lac (garlic chicken). Of course there were a couple bowls of sticky rice as well. There was a lot of swapping of food back and forth, and I tried all the condiments on the table and liked them all! Nothing tasted fishy to me. There was this dish of red pepper sauce that was very spicy, but mixed with the peanut sauce and dipping a spring roll into it was very good. The general tso's was pretty typical, IMO, but I am not a big fan of breaded anything at a Chinese restaurant. I find it's usually too much bread and not enough meat. The pepper steak was good. The BBQ pork bun was good, but sure did need all the extras! The garlic chicken was very good, but the best was the garlic beef! That is what I ordered and it came out last of all, but well worth the wait! Tender chunks of filet mignon, medium rare, garlic cloves, red peppers, onions, jalapenos (didn't eat one though!) on top of lettuce and tomatoes with fried onions! I put the fish sauce on it, as well as some lemon sauce, and peanut sauce. Very good and I shared, yet still had some to bring home. I already know what I want to try next time . . . out of a choice of four things. Good service, good food, good times! You can't beat that!

                Thanks for all the input, everyone.

                3 Replies
                1. re: danhole

                  danhole, the bo luc lac is the shaken beef that honey bee was referring to. good choice, it is one of the best dishes at mai's.

                  for good pho, it's best to go to a pho shop that specializes in it. in downtown houston, i used to go to pho saigon all the time on milam, but i recently found an even better place on travis in the strip center next door to escobar(2905 travis). i can't remember the name of it.

                  1. re: neverfull

                    There is a pho saigon on Tidwell that I drive past, so one day I stopped to get a menu to peruse. What stuck out to me was that out of the clientele, most were vietnamese, or asian. No that many caucasians. I took the menu to my DH and he actually said that he saw some things he would try, so now that's on the list, too.

                    I looked at B-4-UEAT and saw a place on travis, Pho Cong Ly, but it is closed now. Was that it?

                    1. re: danhole

                      pho cong ly is long gone. the name of the pho joint is thien an sandwiches. don't know why it isn't listed on b4.

                      what makes a good pho standout is really the broth. pho saigon made me happy for years until i tried the broth at thien an. it's so much more fragrant and flavorful.

                      pho saigon is a local chain. i'm sure the one by your house is probably as good as the one in midtown, but if your DH found something on the menu he would try at pho saigon, chances are he'll find it on the TA menu too since it is more extensive.

                2. Northern and Southern Vietnamese foods are world's apart, the southern having khmer/french influences and the northern have strong Chinese influences. You often find curries, seafod, and spicy elements in the south while the north tends to have more noodles and use of pork or beef.

                  Fish sauce is used in the same manner that anchovy is used. It's mostly to add "umami" to the foods, which gives it depth and unctuousness. Very rarely is the food fishy at all.

                  The Vietnamese staple is rice and a typical meal consists of a bowl of it, a protein, a vegetable, pickles, canh (a light broth or soup), and assorted herbage on the side.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: takadi

                    It's the herbage that the hardest to recreate (in the UK), imho. The only Asian herbs that are widely available are Thai basil, coriander (and mint, obviously). I really miss those fresh flavours we had when we visited Vietnam earlier this year.

                    1. re: greedygirl

                      We are really lucky in Cambridge as we have on Mill Road two Chinese 'Supermarkets', one specialising in Malay, Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese as well. It's great. If you are putting together ingredients for a meal, the owner will shout at you "Why you have this in your basket?" - pointing to the Malay balachan. "You have ingredients for Thai curry, not Malay, so you need this" and she will pop a tub of pungent shrimp paste in instead. Fantastic. And the vegetables are often completely unrecognisable but she will spend ages telling you how to prepare and cook them. Over time I have photographed some of them to put on my website to help people identify them. We also have a Korean 'Supermarket' and an 'Indian emporium' which stocks Middle Eastern, Arabic, 'Indian' and also European ingredients. They will stock whatever you ask for and I come out with armfuls of coriander with the roots on, bitter gourds, cassava and all sorts of things. Wonderful places. To my astonishment, a fair amount of their stock seems to be grown in Norfolk!!

                      In case you want to have a look at some of them, try

                      There was a great Vietnamese restaurant nearby called Pho, but it has closed, sad day. Does anyone know of a good one in London?

                      1. re: Foodlexi

                        Ah Mill Road! Know it well (went to university in Cambridge).

                        We also have a Chinese supermarket near our home in London, but the supply of fresh Asian herbs varies a lot. I'm sure you could get a bigger variety in Chinatown.

                        1. re: greedygirl

                          It's a small world, but rather wonderful!