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Nha Toi Report (long) – Northern Vietnamese in San Jose

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Alice Patis Jun 12, 2006 08:42 PM

It was like I was in a dream. Or at least in a flashback to my childhood. I was eating my mom’s cooking. Only it was my mom’s cooking from 20 years ago, not my mom’s current cooking. This place cooks like my mom back before she moved to the US and started using US-grown ingredients, before she used time-saving shortcuts or added international touches to her cooking. This was simple, homey, northern Vietnamese food. Nha Toi translates to “Our House” and this did really seem like I was in our house.

The posts by stuart (linked below) piqued my curiosity so I went here for a recon lunch today. When I looked at the specials under the glass tabletop, I knew I had hit pay dirt. These were not your run of the mill specials you see everywhere, like Bo Luc Lac (Shaking Beef) and Goi Du Du (Green Papaya Salad), though both items are in fact in the regular menu. Out of the 20 items on this Specials Menu in Vietnamese, I recognized only the first 3. I could read all the words and understand each word, I just couldn’t recognize them as dishes I’d ever seen anywhere before. I looked around and saw a white board of 10 more specials, listed under the words “New and Seasonal Dishes” (the only English on the white board). Not to mention the regular menu (in Vietnamese and well-translated English) had 180+ dishes. I was completely bewildered. Luckily, the server helped me and described a few of the specials to me, some of which I then recognized as dishes my mom would make years ago, dishes without any names because back then I simply ate whatever she made, I never asked what it was I was eating. I knew I’d never be able to decide on my own, so I went with 2 dishes she recommended.

While waiting, I perused the menu more closely and found more dishes from my childhood. Besides shaking beef and papaya salad there were many other familiar standards, as well as Pho, and there was a section of vegetarian dishes. Most items were under $10, except for seafood specials and the 7 varieties of hot pot (lau) were $20.95 or $22.95. I also noticed that some of the glass top specials are listed in the regular menu, so I was able to get the English translation of what I ordered. Unfortunately I left my whole sheet of notes at the restaurant when I left, so below is an approximation of the English translation of what I ate:

Ca Nuc Kho Mia, $8 or 9
Norwegian Mackerel braised in sauce made with sugarcane
This was meltingly tender, omega-3 fats providing great mouthfeel, with a very deep, slightly peppery sauce. Oh that sauce. Ohhhhh that sauce. And a round of applause for not making this dish sweet despite the word sugarcane in the name. And there were no pin bones, just the spine which was so soft it disintegrated in my mouth.

Canh Mong Toi/Muop (nau voi tom tuoi & rieu cua), $7.95
Soup with Vietnamese Spinach and Squash (cooked with fresh shrimp and ground crab)
The last time I had this soup was before I left home for college. I’d forgotten about it until a few months ago, when I saw this kind of spinach at a farmer’s market and hastily bought and attempted to make it at home, for which I failed miserably because (1) I used canned broth and (2) I didn’t bother to make the ground crab mini patties (the misshapen mini patties you see in Bun Rieu Crab Soup).
This version is very simple but so good. The broth might not be much more than water plus the flavor from the veggies, ground crab, and shrimp, but its simplicity is the key. The small chopped pieces of shrimp were not overcooked and the ground crab was not “smelly”. Some might be put off by the slippery nature of this vegetable, but I like it. I tried to find an English translation for this spinach (it’s not convolvulus water spinach which is rau muong). I finally found a website with a database of plant names in 60 languages (!) and rau mong toi is listed as “Ceylon spinach, Indian saag, Malabar spinach, Indian spinach, East-Indian spinach, Slippery vegetable, Surinam spinach, Malabar nightshade, Vine spinach”. There is a red-stem variety (Nha Toi restaurant used the green-stem variety). The squash is similar to zucchini in taste but softer; the English plant name is luffa.

Some other notes of my visit:

There is a big flat screen tv showing the World Cup game. It was muted until someone asked to turn on the sound, and then it was audible but not overly annoying.
In one corner there is a tiny space for a microphone and singer/instrumentalist (empty today).
Only 2 of the 15 or so diners were non-Asian. Mostly older crowd, mostly men.
There are various fruit shakes for $3 (add a quarter for pearl/boba), and various che (sweet bean) drinks. Tea has a flowery fragrant touch (either from chrysanthemum or osmanthus).
The paste of minced red chiles is satanically hot.

Food was pretty prompt, arriving ~10 minutes after I ordered. Soon later my server asked how things were, but after that, I was ignored as she went about bringing many various dishes to other 6 or 7 tables, nodding to my raised hand but still ignoring me. The owner/manager lady was walking around and helping, but was completely oblivious to my presence and I could not even make eye contact with her. Maybe being a solo diner sitting under the World Cup game might’ve had something to do with being ignored. I finally went to the counter to pay and ask for takeout containers, and wanted to chat with the owner/manager about the food but I would’ve had to grab her for her to notice me, and she never got close enough for me to do that.

I wish I still have my notes because I scribbled names of dishes in the regular menu that I loved from my childhood. Raw beef salad with toasted rice and ginger dressing. Steamed young chicken with julienned lime leaves. Thin-sliced steamed pork served with greens/herbs and shrimp paste sauce. Minced pork and herbs in jelly/aspic. Then there’s Crab with tamarind seasoning for $14.95, to compare against Vung Tau’s version when it’s crab season again. So many choices!

Also, if there’s any interest, I can try to translate/describe each of their glass-top specials and today’s white board specials (photos below). Link to more photos below.

Nha Toi Restaurant
480 E. William St. (btw 10th and 11th)
San Jose, CA

Link: http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=5...

Image: http://i16.photobucket.com/albums/b39...

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  1. a
    aloo RE: Alice Patis Jun 12, 2006 09:04 PM

    Thanks for this great post! I hope to try this place soon and will bring your post as a guide!

    1. r
      RWCFoodie RE: Alice Patis Jun 13, 2006 12:06 AM

      Alice thank you so much for the recon visit! I can't wait to try this place...

      1. r
        rworange RE: Alice Patis Jun 13, 2006 12:44 AM

        Sounds like a wonderful find Alice. I'm guessing you will be returning. Looking forward to more reports from you and other hounds.

        1. m
          Melanie Wong RE: Alice Patis Jun 13, 2006 02:35 AM

          Alice, I'm so delighted that you found these long lost tastes of childhood. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the dishes you uncover at Nha Toi.

          Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

          1. d
            Derek RE: Alice Patis Jun 13, 2006 04:39 AM

            Thanks for the post, Alice.

            When I first glanced at the menu, I had a distinct impression that the restaurant was one that served "Drinking Food" (sorta like a Japanese Izakaya), but was pleansantly surprised to find a very unique blend of "home-cooked" type of dishes - the menu made Vung Tau looked "pedestrian".

            I had ordered the Fried Rice with Salted Dry (Fermented) Fish and that was great! The Hot Pots are definitely something not to miss as well.

            I'm definitely coming back there soon to check out the Raw Fish Sald that they had on their special menu.

            1. m
              Momo RE: Alice Patis Jun 14, 2006 12:28 AM

              Hey Alice,

              Thanks for a great report! I can't wait to try this place. Do you think you could translate the specials whenever it's convenient? It would be great help to us hounds who can't read Vietnamese. Thanks in advance!

              1. a
                Alice Patis RE: Alice Patis Jun 14, 2006 01:09 PM

                Slow day, so I translated Nha Toi's Specials. Whew! I got help from Google and I found some of these dishes translated on other restaurant menu websites. Keep in mind Nha Toi's regular menu had some of the Glass Top specials, so you might find a more accurate translation in Nha Toi's regular menu. If/after I revist Nha Toi I might end up correcting some of these translations.

                Glass Top Specials, Left Side:

                Bo Kho – Beef stew
                Bun Bo Hue – Spicy Hue style beef noodle soup
                Bun Rieu (Cua Tuoi) – Noodle soup with ground crab and tomatoes (Fresh Crab)
                Ca Nuc Kho Mia – Norwegian Mackerel braised in a sauce made with sugarcane
                Ca Thu Kho Rieng – Spanish mackerel stewed in a sauce made with galangal
                Ca Phao Mam Tom Bac – Fish (don’t know what species) with sauce made with fermented shrimp paste, northern style
                Canh Rau Day voi Muop – Soup of saluyot (jute) leaves, with luffa squash
                Canh Mong Toi voi Muop (nau voi tom tuoi and rieu cua) – Soup of malabar spinach leaves, with luffa squash (cooked with fresh shrimp and ground crab)
                Com Chay – “burnt” (ie crispy) rice
                Gio Heo Gia Cay – no idea; might be a stew with pig’s feet/ankle
                Goi Ca – fish salad (might be the raw fish salad Derek mentioned)
                Lau Luon – Hot Pot with eel

                Glass Top Specials, Right Side:

                Luon Um Nuoc Dua - Eel, something, coconut juice/coconut milk
                Luon Xao Lan – Eel stir-fried with ???

                Mam Thu Cha – Some kind of sauce
                Or
                Mam Tom Cha – Fermented Shrimp sauce
                With
                Thit Luoc Heo – Thin sliced poached pork belly
                Or
                Ca Hap - Steamed fish with scallions in oil

                Mam Ruoc Hue Xao Xa Ot Thit Heo –Fermented Shrimp Paste Hue style, stir fried with lemongrass, chiles and pork
                Mi Vit Tiem – Roast Duck Noodle Soup (with Chinese herbal medicine flavor)
                Nom Rau Muong – Salad? of Water Spinach/Ong Choy (Convolvulus)
                Nem Ran Cua Be – These are just Cha Gio (fried spring rolls) with crab
                Tom Cang Kho Tau – Large Prawns braised simmered chinese? style (maybe with a caramel sauce, like Vung Tau’s “Tom Rim” prawns dish)

                Whiteboard Specials:

                Cua Rang Muoi – Fried Salt & Pepper Crab
                Cua Rang Me – Fried Tamarind Crab
                Tom Can Nuong & Banh Hoi – Grilled large prawns & very thin rice noodle ‘patties’
                Bo Nuong Mo Chai & Banh Hoi – Grilled beef with scallions in oil, & very thin rice noodle ‘patties’
                Ca Hap Mo Hanh – Steamed fish (or red snapper or black cod) with scallions in oil
                Ngheu Hap – Steamed clams
                Ca Thu Kho Rieng – Spanish mackerel stewed in a sauce made with galangal

                Lau Luon Rau Muong – Hot Pot with eel and water spinach/ong choy
                Luon Um Nuoc Dua - Eel, something, coconut juice/coconut milk
                Luon Bam Xao Xa Ot – Minced/Chopped eel stir-fried with lemongrass

                Image: http://i16.photobucket.com/albums/b39...

                5 Replies
                1. re: Alice Patis
                  a
                  Alice Patis RE: Alice Patis Jun 14, 2006 01:15 PM

                  Doh!! I just looked at my photo and realized a stupid mistake.

                  On the left side of the Glass Top Specials:

                  Ca Phao Mam Tom Bac is NOT a fish, it's EGGPLANT, braised with fermented shrimp paste, northern style

                  Stupid stupid accents (mutter mutter).

                  1. re: Alice Patis
                    u
                    uyen RE: Alice Patis Jun 15, 2006 07:44 PM

                    this is off the point...
                    but the term "ca phao" to refer to those little egglants.. i have heard northern VN refer to them as ca ghem (sp?) versus southern as "ca phao"...

                    as for the dish... "ca phao mam tom bac" is that raw quartered little eggplants served with shrimp paste dipping sauce? i remember my grandmother would quarter and soak in salted water the mini eggplants and then drain and serve them with mam tom or mam ruoc with plain white rice... its an acquired taste but it can be addicting...

                  2. re: Alice Patis
                    n
                    Nathan P. RE: Alice Patis Jun 14, 2006 03:57 PM

                    You are a generous hound, Alice!

                    I've printed this out and look forward to using it. I tried it out yesterday using one of the items I knew. Mi Vit Tiem. Good- different than the one at Dalat last week but each had the merits. The waitress I had was rather shocked when I ordered off the vietnamese specials board which was amusing.

                    1. re: Alice Patis
                      m
                      Momo RE: Alice Patis Jun 14, 2006 09:39 PM

                      Hey Alice,

                      WOW, you are awesome! I agree with Nathan - you're certainly a generous hound. Now it'll make my life a lot easier trying to order when I go to Nha Toi. I think the restaurant owner should know about this - this will bring a lot of us there :)

                      When I went to Tanto, that was the biggest hurdle I had to go thru when I order dishes. I've tried to get the waitress to recommend stuff on the specials menu and then write it down as a note for the future but I didn't feel I could ask her to translate everything!
                      So I always felt I was missing out on great stuff on the Japanese menu!

                      1. re: Alice Patis
                        u
                        uyen RE: Alice Patis Jun 15, 2006 07:36 PM

                        gio heo gia cay...

                        my mom used to make this...
                        the original version is made with fermented rice for the tangy flavor and gravy-ish consistency... it is leg of pork (feet, ankle, thigh)... it is then charred to get rid of any hairs on the leg and prep the skin... the meat is then chopped into pieces... and here is where i get lost in the cooking process... i know she uses galanga and banana blossoms... the actual cooking and seasoning i don't know... also, i noticed that other families use tamarind instead of fermented rice to prepare this dish... although the tamarind version is good, i prefer the feremnted rice, but that's just me...

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