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South Bay Viet lunch series resumes: Thien Long

On a thread at the end of 2007, I resolved to resume our Viet lunch series as there had been a significant gap since our last lunch. I made good on my promise. Five hungry hounds gathered yesterday at Thien Long in East San Jose, battling inclement weather and crazy drivers in pursuit of Viet food deliciousness. It was a delicious reunion, indeed.

Thien Long is housed in a sparkling new strip mall just off the 101, north of Silver Creek and Capitol. I'm pretty certain that this is owned by the same people who owned Pho Thien Long (now Pho Phi Long) in Grand Century Mall. This place is larger w/ spacious tables, comfy chairs, and lots of natural light. Doing both lunch and dinner business, they also accept reservations. The other place was known by hounds for their cha ca (turmeric-coated catfish w/ dill and scallions) and lau (seafood hotpot), and they have carried over those items to this menu.

We got one order of each:

Goi du du bo kho: green papaya salad w/ dried beef
Chim nuong: grilled butterflied quail
Pho ap chao don (sp?): fried bricks of pho noodles w/ beef and vegetable stir fry & gravy
Lau (described on their menu as for 2)
Cha ca (also for 2)

This was more than enough food for the five of us and was initially overwhelming since they brought everything out at one time, filling every square inch of our table. Everything looked vibrant and smelled seductive. If sequencing is important to you or if you want to have food come out gradually, then be sure to emphasize this to the floor manager/waiter or order course by course.

Total cost for food, tea, one beverage, and 20% tip was $17pp--an excellent value IMO given amount and quality of food. The lau and cha ca were among the most expensive items on the menu at around $20ea. The bowls of various noodles soups going out to other tables were gargantuan, and I definitely want to return w/ husband to sample their bun rieu oc, pho, and other difficult-to-share items...

This was an auspicious start to the new year and resumption of our lunch series. Thanks to my lunch companions for their company and chow conversation! Stay tuned for more reports this year...I will add more thoughts when my companions have chimed in and I have more time. Below is a link to my photos of the meal.


Thien Long Restaurant
3005 Silver Creek Rd, San Jose, CA 95121

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  1. Since they have cha ca, is it a Northern Vietnamese place? Sounds so good. I wish I were there- I look forward to the rest of the reports.

    1 Reply
    1. re: P. Punko

      Even though cha ca originates in Hanoi and I believe Thien Long tries to emulate the famous one from Cha Ca La Vong, I wouldn't really label this place as a North Viet place. Their menu has items from other regions (bun bo hue, lau) so they seem to be taking a more generalist approach. That's not to say that they might do certain dishes better than others given the family's background. I've never encountered the fried pho noodles dish that we had, so I wonder what region that comes from. Some commented that it tasted more Chinese in seasoning and preparation. Does anyone know where the owners or cooks hail from exactly? My guess is from the north, but I'm not sure...

      The bowls of soups others were ordering looked great, and they have the classics like pho bo, pho ga, and bun rieu oc there. They also have some interesting looking stews served w/ baguette that I don't see everywhere, so further investigation is needed! Please go and let us know what you think...

      Now, where are my friends in chow? Please share your comments here!

    2. So what are the plusses and minuses of choosing this over the original location? Was there a difference in the food quality? Parking? Ease of access? Other fun stuff nearby?

      3 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        I've not been to the original location but I parking was no problem on a stormy Sunday. The location is just two turns (about 5 minutes) off 101 Hwy. The smaller mall around the restaurant seems very new, with some shop interiors still being constructed. We strolled after lunch and found a cute take-away Viet bakery/cafe, a Hue Viet restaurant, a Mexican and Thai restaurant, neither of which I inspected, what looked like a standard Tapioca/bubble tea place. The mall outside our restaurant area had a Target and looked uninteresting, so I didn't explore.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          Based on a yelp comment for Pho Thien Long in fall '07, it's possible that the original location (now renamed Pho Phi Long) is not owned by the same people as Thien Long. I'm thinking they may have relocated to this new strip mall and dropped the "pho" to emphasize their broad menu and sit-down restaurant atmosphere. I should have clarified this w/ the wait staff, but we were busy strategizing all the plates of food and catching up. Nathan and I walked around GCM after and noticed that PPL was relatively empty, and it's definitely not as cozy or big as TL's space.

          The parking at TL was quite easy for a Sun. and I like this newly developed section of "Little Saigon" or "Saigon Business District" or whatever you want to call it. We walked around the shopping center afterwards, and the deli a few doors down had minimal inventory but the fresh rice paper rolls that I bought were delicious. There were other shops and cafes whose proprietors were all smiley and welcoming. There looked to be a cafe specializing in Central Viet food advertising their bun bo hue and such. I also like how the Hispanic and Viet communities blend in this area so that it's common to see a taqueria next to a Viet establishment. A bakery is also slated to open up soon.

          As for the quality of food, it's been almost three years since my last visit to Pho Thien Long. A link to the Viet crawl that you also attended is provided below. From what I recall, I liked the cha ca a little better this time since the fish had more flavor. I do wish they had more fresh dill on the hot plate though. The portions seem just as generous, if not more so, as before. This menu seemed to be more extensive than what I remember of the GCM location.


          1. re: Carb Lover

            Thanks, Carb Lover! Sounds well worth a visit.

        2. CL: Once again, thanks so much for resurrecting the Viet lunch gathering! Meeting time was right on: we seemed to beat the lunch time rush (we met at noon).

          Thanks to David for portioning the quail - probably the best version of this I've had. The little birdies were not overcooked to the point of dessication as they often are (at least when I've had them). I was just thinking, I bet a squeeze of lime along with the pepper salt would have been very yummy.

          While the green papaya salad was nothing unusual, it was a palate waker-upper - what was unusual/different to me was the type of dried beef garnish used - it looked like it had dried chile on it but it didn't taste spicy (to me).

          For me, the Cha Ca was the highlight of the meal. The fish was succulent and flavorful with no "off" flavors. It's been too long since I've been to the Pho Thien/now Pho Phi Long in the Grand Century mall to remember if this was as good or better than their version... DH and I both enjoyed the dish very much.

          The Lau/seafood hotpot was very nicely presented. Great dish for days with inclement weather for sure. Thanks to Nathan for adding/removing items from the pot as they were done. The fish fillets were just perfect. I don't think I've ever seen the noodles mixed the way they were but I liked the variety.

          Given the challenges of a long narrow table and having everything arrive at virtually the same time and on large platters/dishes - it was a very enjoyable meal with great company!

          I too look forward to returning to try the bun rieu oc and maybe the bun bo kho (I think that's what it was called - the photo looked really good).

          CL: Your photos are the best - made me wish I could just run down there for more!

          1. This was a great lunch, and well-worth the debris-strewn drive down 280! My thoughts on each dish below:

            Goi du du bo kho: green papaya salad w/ dried beef
            - papaya was balanced blend of chewy and crispy; I can't recall the beef...who ate it all?! :)

            Chim nuong: grilled butterflied quail
            - oh my. 2 nicely-sized quail, with a truly delicious sweet, smoky flavor. Perhaps just slightly overdone, but not at all dry. They provided a bowl of salt and pepper for sprinkling, which balanced out the sweetness of the meat. I occasionally dipped the edges of the meat into my bowl of chili-oil. Most memorable and easily my favorite of the meal. I'm anxious to have it again.

            Pho ap chao don: fried bricks of pho noodles w/ beef and vegetable stir fry & gravy
            - This was a new dish for me; the chewy noodle bricks were fun to eat, and once I augmented the slightly-sweet sauce with chilies, I found it satisfactory, but didn't compare well to the stand-outs of lunch.

            Lau (described on their menu as for 2)
            - I was most surprised at the amount of food we got in the $20 hot pot. the mussels were my favorite, but everything was very good quality, and the broth had nice, round flavor, though a little more spice would be appreciated. Easily worth more that $20...and would feed more than two people. It came with a sauce (new for me), brown, medium-bodied and slightly vinegary, which I used to good effect, mixed with the noodles. We tossed the rest of the noodles in remaining broth, which I would have enjoyed more if I hadn't been end-of-meal full.

            Cha ca (also for 2)
            - I haven't had this dish since I was in Ha Noi (at Cha Ca La Vong I'm proud to say), and it was one of my favorites here. I took such pleasure in preparing a bowl full of torn lettuce, herbs, chili-infused nuoc-mam, grilled onion and nicely cooked tumeric fish. So tasty!

            The restaurant was clean and pleasant, and the staff were attentive and kind. For large parties, I would recommend ordering in stages, so you're not overwhelmed with food, unless you like that kind of thing.

            And as always, a bevy of fine dining companions, who kindly accompanied me to culinary happiness.

            1. I agree with the general wrap up here. I have been to Phi Long in GCM a few times for the cha ca there. I find them to be very similar on the fish flavor but from I recall a larger qty of dill at Phi Long which would give them a slight nod. But this could easily vary by visit.

              On the topic of Phi Long, If you are a solo diner they have a bun bowl with the cha ca and grilled pork in broth. Its not as good as the full dish but GCM is pretty close to my office so this fills a craving w/o having to round up more people.

              And the quail were the best we've had in this lunch series even if we needed a few lime wedges with them.

              1. Wow, it's great to see the lunch series resume. I'm sorry I've been out of touch and not posting much (my work blocks chowhound.com). I would've probably not been able to join you this time since it was a weekend, but I'm hoping there are future lunches.

                Excited from reading the first few posts this am, I went to PTL for lunch today (I work real close). I spoke to the older lady at the counter and she said they moved from GCM, and the owners of Phi Long are not the same or related. So maybe the dishes that Nathan has been having at Phi Long are copies (though it sounds like good copies).

                I wanted to see if the pho is the same (and to add to my long list of pho rankings) so I simply got beef pho today. It was very good, as I remember it: tasting very deeply of long simmered beef bones, light on spices. Noodles might have actually been fresh but I'm not sure. Afterwards I asked the same lady if the cook is from the north or the south and she said from the north, so I'm glad to see they kept the pho northern style.

                If the bun rieu oc is the same as what I've had before when it was at GCM, I remember it was just ok, not the deep funky crabby flavor that I look for in bun rieu, but the snails were nicely non rubbery.

                Anyway thanks for posting all these reports and hope I get to join you guys sometime soon!

                1 Reply
                1. re: Alice Patis

                  Thanks for your follow up, Alice! I look forward to trying their noodle soups. I hope you can join us next time too! Keep us posted on what else you try at Thien Long...

                2. Went last night. Can VERY enthusiastically recommend the Cha Ca (just like Carb Lover says- 20 bucks on the menu, but listed for two people). The dish was perfect. The seared fish comes out on a metal plate over two cans of sterno- raw onions, scallions, dill and some oil form a bed for the turmeric marinated and seared fish. The onions continue to cook and sizzle on the heated plate. The fish is topped with fried shallots and some peanuts. A gigantic pile of vermicelli, mint, cilantro, shiso, lettuce, some cucumber and nuoc mam accompany the dish. It was amazing. The best thing I've eaten this year. Restaurant is clean, service was fast and friendly. I just need to remember that I don't love salty lemonade, so I need to stop ordering it.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: P. Punko

                    I'm so glad that you checked it out and that you enjoyed the cha ca! I had their soda chanh and thought it was good but not as good as my gold standard soda chanh at Vung Tau; the latter is more expensive though. They are supposed to have good smoothies if you're into that sort of thing. I definitely want to return to explore more of their menu. I will now elaborate on my thoughts of our lunch...

                    I liked both the cha ca and lau very much, although the flavors are very different. The turmeric-dusted catfish was fresh, and generous-sized pieces mounded the hot plate. I assembled my bowl of bun, fish, dill, scallions, peanuts, and fresh herbs. Their nuoc cham is on the weak side for me, but the dish really came together once I added a trickle of mam tom (mauve-colored shrimp paste sauce). I just wish there was more dill and that the fish had a little more caramelization from the kitchen. The bed of onions and aromatics was a protective barrier to keep the fish from overcooking on the hot plate, but I suppose I could try to char the fish more at the table. One waiter came over after the plate had sizzled for a bit and extinguished the heat source since he noticed smoke blowing into Nathan's face (he didn't seem to mind the aroma).

                    The lau's broth was rich and flavorful, and I particularly appreciated the addition of pickled cabbage for a sour note. The accompanying seafood and beef were all fresh and prepared w/ care, although the beef seemed out of place among the seafood. I particularly enjoyed the delicate and sweet-tasting chunks of white fish, although I'm not sure what it was exactly. Anyone know? I liked the combo of egg and rice noodles as well as the fresh Napa cabbage; I just wish there was a little more broth to work our way through it all! My mom saw the photos and commented how there was not enough broth for all the accompaniments.

                    I'm glad we ordered the pho ap chao don since I've never tried it elsewhere before, but it wasn't nearly as tasty as the aforementioned dishes. It was a basic beef and veggie stirfry w/ a light, fairly bland gravy. The novelty was the wide rice noodles that appeared to have been layered, cut into bricks, and then deep fried. I liked the exterior's crunch, but the dish as a whole needed a decent amount of doctoring up for my tastebuds. I asked my mom about this dish, and she said that she's typically seen loose noodles that are fried and then strewn over the top.

                    The two starters of quail and papaya salad were both good. David and I were discussing how flavorful and juicy the quail was, as if it had been marinated for a while before cooking. I'm not a big quail eater, but if you are, this is probably the best I've had in the South Bay. The papaya salad was crunchy and refreshing but sorta got lost for me among the flurry of dishes.

                    Overall, I was completely content w/ our meal and was surprised when it only came to $17pp given our ample feast. The service was attentive, but next time I will be more clear about sequencing dishes if I'm w/ a large group eating family-style. I'm looking forward to going back!