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Oct 23, 2007 06:45 AM

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.

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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:

          1 Reply
          1. The original comment has been removed
            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.