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Mar 1, 2001 11:55 PM

Westminster, hard-drinking Vietnamese, and me: a story with dish recommendations

  • t

I read this board constantly and post recommendations rarely - being new to town, I don't feel able to comment. But every once in a while, I feel the need to give back to you kind, wonderful folk. Thus, the following story:

I myself am, while ethnically Vietnamese, about as Americanized as I come. The only cuisine I understand decently, cooking-wise, is Italian, after a long internship under two very Italian friends in Boston. I wouldn't know what to do with lemongrass if it were the last flavoring-substance on earth.

My parents, on the other hand, are, understandably experts. During their last visit to LA, we went down to Westminster for a little Vietnamese, during which I learned some fascinating culinary facts, which I will know share with you.

We went to Thanh My, which I'd heard good things about - a smallish restaurant on Bolsa a little west of Brookhurst. Upon sitting down, my mother glanced and the menu and started to fuss about the place being... I don't how how to spell it, but a think it sounds something like ngohmp.

My mother insisted that I pick what I wanted. So I ordered some canh (hot and sour fish soup), some caramelized hot pot beef, and some eel curry. We also tried to order a shrimp-on-sugarcane appetizer, the the waiter made disapproving noises and told us we'd ordered too much food. We withdrew the shrimp order. The waiter left, brought some tea, at which point my mother informed me that I'd probably ordered entirely incorrectly, except for the eel.

Apparently, explain my parents, this was a place of "ngohmp" food. This meant that it was a men's drinking saloon and eating house, with special Vietnamese drinking foods.

Says my dad: "Men, you know, they went to fight wars. During the day, they fought, and at night, they would go out with each other to places like this and nghomp. That means, they would drink hard liquors, like sake, and eat very powerful foods."

Mother: "Men didn't go out with women. The women, they stayed home, and the men loafed aroudn and drank all day."

Dad: "Well, they fought, you know? There was always a war, and they were always fighting. Anyway, in America, you eat what with liquor? Nuts?"

Mother: "Nuts and pretzels."

Me: "Also, sometimes we have jalapeno poppers. And nachos - nachos are very important."

Dad: "Vietnamese men eat very strange things with their drinks. Like eel, goat."

Mother: "It's all meat. Always, very strong meat."

Dad: "Goat, boar, venison... It's all..."

Me: "Game?"

Dad: "Yes, snake, boar..."

Mother: "Goat, eel..."

So the food comes. The canh and the hot pot, normally favorites of mine, are so-so. But the eel... the eel is sensational. It's rich and deep and mysterious. The flesh is creamy and powerful, the sauce more so. It's a powerhouse, and its delectable. Probably the best eel I've had, outside of a $8 bucks a pop sushi-house unagi nigiri.

My mom and dad inform me that, by their standards, the eel dish was *excellent*, certainly the best they'd had in the States by a long shot, and if I came back to Thanh My, I should get other nghomp dishes, since that was obviously the specialty of the house.

So the upshot is, go to Thanh My, and order the weird stuff. There's a separate section for game - they carry boar, goat, and venison. And, of course, the eel.

Also, take the following warning from my mother: "If you take your Caucasian friends here, don't order the eel. The eel... it's bones are very bad. They don't get digested, you'll have to get surgery if you swallow one. Eel bones are big, so that's very hard to do, but you know Caucasians..."

So: eel bones bad. But they're huge, they stick to the spine, and you'd really have to work at it to swallow one. So I wouldn't worry that much.



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  1. thi--what a delight to read your latest biannual posting! A great story. But please tell your mom that there are two kinds of Caucasions: culinarily clueless Caucasians and Chowhound Caucasians. And that she should ALWAYS tell the second group about the eel. We get really sad if nobody tells us about the eel.

    Y'know, there's a serious vietnamese/italian connection in Boston, where one of my favorite places in the North End (The Daily Catch) has a Vietnamese chef who cooks KILLING black squid ink pasta (and other good stuff).

    2 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      Oh dear lord. Don't mention the Daily Catch. If you mention the Daily Catch, and the linguine with clams - really, I think, the *best* linguine with clams I have *ever* tasted and you're talking to a man who has sampled linguine with clams in every place in Boston, who, albeit a man who has never actually been to Italy, or much elsewhere in this world, though, of course, still a young man - if you mention the Daily Catch, I might spend the last of my meager savings for a plane ticket back to Boston for one more go at the Daily Catch and your wonderful friend, who I remember.


      1. re: Jim Leff

        Mmmmm....The Daily Catch....(gurgle, gurgle)....

        One of the things I miss most about my time in Boston. That calamari, those pastas, the fact that you're seated about six inches from their stoves!!

        (When did they acquire a Vietnamese chef? The last time I was there -- admittedly, quite a few years ago -- the stoves were manned by a grizzled old Caucasian.)

      2. Thi, I just love this story. Being third/fourth generation Chinese American who can barely pronounce all our dim sum (we call it chong owh) dishes, I can completely relate to the difficulties you have in getting the older generations to give up the dirt on cultural propriety!

        Geez, your folks knew it was a men's drinking restaurant, but they let you misorder anyway. Thanks for the humiliation Mom and Dad! How do they expect us to know this stuff if they don't teach us??? Anyway, I just LOVE eel, so please pass along any more eel recommendations. And I agree with your folks here. With the exception of Senor Neff, most of my Euro-American friends are really far less adventurous eaters than they claim to be. We order eel. They taste it, but I have to eat the whole damn dish!

        Anyway, don't be such a stranger. There's a lot of us Asian-cuisine fans out here on the board. Us Chinese -- we're born to eat. Why do you think all our parties involve 10 course meals?

        2 Replies
        1. re: Louise
          Gretchen Ehrenberg

          Thanh My is owned by a man who fills the bill for hard drinkin' and wild. I love him dearly and have been eating there for over five years.
          There are a number of workers there who still speak French and it is always fun to be a German woman, sitting in a Vietnamese Restaurant, speaking French!

          1. re: Louise

            I know very little about Vietnamese food, but I've learned a thing or two about parenting. It is not always easy to pass along knowledge. The child is often resistant to absobing what is offered of the parent's hard earned knowledge. The good parent leads the child along the path of discovery, allowing the child a safe zone in which to make his or her own discoveries. The good parent then helps the child understand what it is that has been discovered.

            This seems to be exactly what Thi's parents have done. Thi is fortunate to have such wise parents.

          2. Agreed! I've been to Thanh My several times and in my experience the best dish I've had is the De Xao Lan (goat in a curry and coconut milk sauce w/mint leaves and ground peanuts). The Bun Cha gio wasn't too bad either. If you like Bo 7 Mon (7 courses of beef)my favorites are Pagolac (14564 Brookhurst St., Westminster), Anh Hong (Brookhurst and Westminster Bl.) and May Hong (10561 Bolsa, Garden Grove). For seafood, Grand Garden has a Catfish hotpot and Chao Tom that are hard to beat. I also like Pho Hien Vuong (2525 W. 17th St, Santa Ana) for some of the best Pho around!