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Oct 21, 2008 03:19 PM

Thien An roast catfish

Thanks much to yoyo for recommending Thien An - it is, indeed, a really great Vietnamese roast catfish. Medium order - $38 - will easily feed three people. It's kind of perfect - moist, dense, dank, very feral catfish flavor. This is *not* farm-raised Western catfish. It's not scary, but it's definitely on the side of gamey. It has the funk, this catfish does.

Skin is... like a sugar shell, shatteringly crisp, about the highest level of crunchy imaginable, kind of like perfect Chinese roast pork skin but thinner about four times crispier, and ever so slightly crisp.

Rolled up with herbs and pickles in rice paper roll, it's a great dinner. Outermost layer: crisp lettuce. 2nd outer layer: soft moistened rice paper. Inner layer: herbs. Inner layer 2: moist, juicy catfish. Innermost layer: a little bit of ultra-crisp catfish skin. Sort of a journey of the teeth, through the Seven Levels of Tasty Heaven, in each bite.

I had the beef salad, too - opening dish from the seven courses of beef. (The place proclaims itself to be a seven course beef joint.) It is nice, and clean, but a little boring compared to other 7-courses-of-beef joints.

Ambiance: mildly run-down banquet hall, colored in peach and a cheap washed-out green that you might call "jade", if you were really generous and more than a little buzzed. I could easily imagine a fight breaking out at a late night wedding between some drunk Viet youths. There is a strange slash high up on the wall. There is venison and boar on the menu. My friend Lennon complained that the vibe was strange - simultaneously mildly run-down, and yet very... peach. She also kept lifting bits of the catfish to her nose and taking deep inhales and saying that it was very, very strange - like no fish she'd smelled before, but like something else, something from her childhood. To this Viet boy, who grew up in the Viet half-gang neighborhoods of San Jose, it felt absolutely and totally right.

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  1. Nice review. Where's the restaurant located?

    1 Reply
    1. re: attran99

      Here 'tis

      Thien An
      8837 Valley Blvd, Rosemead, CA 91770

      1. re: ns1

        How's the Seven Courses of Beef here compare to Anh Hong's?

        Actually, I've never been to the Anh Hong here - only the one in my San Jose hometown Viet-hood.

        1. re: Thi N.

          It's been a long time since I've been to Anh Hong, so I can't say for certain.

      2. i wasn't complaining. i was simply *stating*.
        the vibe of the place was actually a lot like many of the italian banquet-hall type places my family would go to when i was a kid. the Thien An ceiling was a little higher maybe; the walls a little less pink probably. i just hadn't seen anything like it in a long time and certainly didn't expect it here.

        the fish, with it's tear stained cheeks and punch-you-in-the-face-catfish-ness, still haunts my nose's imagination. i can still hear even the cucumber shouting at me that IT'S A CUCUMBER! *smack* AND THOSE ARE MINT LEAVES! *smack* OVER THERE! *smack*smack*
        holy crap - such intense, raw food.
        feral indeed.

        3 Replies
        1. re: nil

          Note: by "raw", she does not mean that the catfish is served raw. It is not. That would be terrfying. She means it is spiritually raw, like the Sun Recordings of Elvis Presley, and the first Wu Tang album.

          Though everything else that goes with the catfish - rice wrappers, herbs, pickled carrots and daikon - are, indeed, raw.

          There is something magical about all cold green ingredients with a hot nugget of warm, juicy catfish at the center. It has more of a magical-discovery effect than a straight all-cold spring roll.

          1. re: Thi N.

            or raw like the wound that results from sprinting to catch your baby after she's just fallen from a window and having to slide on pavement and removing at least 3 layers of skin from your knees to catch her.
            that kind of raw - incredibly intense and totally necessary.

            not uncooked. (i think if it were actually uncooked it would have probably had a fighting chance of eating us. is a big fishie.) sorry for any confusion.

            1. re: nil

              Wow... I heart that last analogy.

              This makes me think that that the place would be good at the other really *muscular* dishes - venison, boar, etc. My dad explained to me once, while at Little Saigon's Thanh My, that places like that - that served curried eel, snake, boar, other game meats - were "men's drinking places." Which explains that, while so much of the rest of Vietnamese food is about delicacy and freshness, all those dishes are about being smacked in the face with a fistful of funk. Meant to be eaten between sips of whiskey.

              This calls for a return trip to Thien An to sample their wild boar.

        2. This sounds great. I'm curious, how is it compared to the whole catfish at Phong Dinh-- which is my only experience with the Vietnamese version, but already made me realize it's one of my favorite meals in the world.

          8 Replies
          1. re: noahbites

            Unsure - I haven't been to Phong Dinh - though I'm planning to. Though the original post that sent me to Thien An last week, from yoyo, started by saying this place was the first Viet catfish place that could tear her away from Phong Dinh - she seemed to think it was a step better.

            1. re: Thi N.

              Sounds like I'll be having to stop by.

              Also, Phong Dinh has some interesting meats as well, such as venison, boar, ostrich and kangaroo. As a side note, does anyone know how common those ingredients are Vietnam?

              1. re: noahbites

                sounds great but can you only get it in that particular size for 38 smackers, and if you're a solo diner is it still doable. thanks.

                1. re: kevin

                  There's a small: $34, a medium: $38, and a large: $44.

                  I think the small is for 2. But note the weird pricing... 3 is a much more efficient number to eat.

                  Doable? Depends on your appetite. I can imagine, if you were a really big, hungry guy, you could take it down.

                  1. re: kevin

                    IMHO, the baked catfish is an OK dish to share with 2 or more, and Thien An does do it well. Being a beef lover myself, I prefer the Bo 7 Mon or 7 courses of beef option. For the solo diner this works out better since they price it per person, and it's around $15/pp.

                    You start off with the beef salad, then get the raw beef slices to dip in the vinegared broth. Followed by raw beef slices, slightly marinated to grill on at your table. Then beef wrapped in la lot leaves, 2 different kinds of beef meatballs, and a beefy rice porridge soup to end the meal.


                    1. re: kingkong5

                      shoot i missed have missed the address, did someone already post it above?

                      1. re: kevin

                        yeah, the second post down from the top, the Rosemead location. I've never been to that one, but I usually go to Thien An location at Harbor/Trask in OC, as that's closer to home. They have an identical sister restaurant Hong An at Westminster/Brookhurst behind the McDonald's near the Mall of Fortune.

                        1. re: kingkong5

                          I would go to the SGV location that would be much closer. It's great though that have locations in both OC and SGV along with another great place, Newport Seafood, which also has locations in both area.