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Dec 17, 2008 11:33 AM

Tôm Hùm Xào Mì Mềm @ Viet Express in San Jose

A couple weeks ago I gave Viet Express, a newish café in the Story Road Little Saigon district a try. I had spotted the awning a couple months ago while on errands at Grand Century Mall, which shares the same block. On first glance, I thought it might be a French-style bakery, but it turns out to be a bistro-like eatery with Vietnamese classics and some French offerings.

It’s not easy to find if you’ve not been here before. On the corner of McLaughlin and Story roads, Viet Express is tucked into the back corner of the building and not visible from the street.

The day's specials are posted on the white board outside. The offerings range a little wider than would be expected for such a small place.

As can be seen on these front and back images of the menu, the cooking has a Vietnamese and French side. For all the attention to other details and the décor of this contemporary bistro, e.g., black marble tabletops, these photocopied menus seem haphazard.

The other customers seemed to be Asian ex-pat yuppies with a smattering of ladies who lunch with table conversations alternating back and forth easily between Vietnamese, English, and Cantonese. With glossy photos of menu items overhead and the L-shaped counter that takes up most of the space, Viet Express has all the look of a chain or franchise operation. However, the young woman who seemed to be in charge assured me that this was the one and only one. The space is somewhat congested with the largest table seating six. For larger parties, several tables can be grouped together to serve 10 to 16. Open only a few months, it has been successful enough that it will be expanding to more space next door for more seating and table service, and keep this smaller side for a fast food concept.

When I sat down, a tantalizing order of the lobster noodles was served to the table next to me. I asked the female customer if it was good, and when she recommended it, I decided to order the tôm hùm xào mì mềm (lobster noodles), $11.99, from the specials menu too. Available with crispy or soft egg noodles, it includes what I added up to be half a lobster stir-fried with celery, bell peppers, onions, and lots of ginger and black pepper. While the noodles were quite oily, this was a tasty dish with a very fresh lobster.

I also had an iced coffee, which was very smooth and concentrated, and came close to the perfection of Vung Tau’s. I hadn’t noticed earlier, but most tables had the house tea, served in a clear glass pot to show off the colorful goji berries, dried jujubes, chrysanthemum flowers, and other aromatics.

This first meal was satisfying enough that I would be eager to return to try more. I hope that chowhounds in the South Bay and the Viet Lunch Group give it a whirl and share their experiences here.

Lemon Grass (formerly Viet Express
)1143 Story Rd, San Jose, CA 95122

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  1. This is hilarious! I was JUST there looking for this restaurant this morning! I heard about a new place called "Vietnamese something" at GC Mall but separate from the main mall building, and since I was in the area this morning decided to go look for it.

    I never found it!! Even reading your post now, I can't figure out where it is and how I missed it. I didn't see those red & white awnings.

    The specials board makes me excited to see dishes or ingredients not commonly found on menus, a couple of which are characteristically northern, but with dishes all over the map. My limited vocab translates the board as follows:

    Left side, below the lobster noodles:
    Frog Legs fried in butter (yum)
    Some kind of seafood (hai san) meatball/ground meat (cha)
    Stuffed escargot (double yum, a childhood favorite of mine)
    Seafood Hotpot (wow only $12)
    Squid steamed with ginger (yum, a new interesting prep)
    Shrimp paste on sugarcane sticks
    A prawn dish (I don't know what "san ho" is)
    Duck rice porridge & salad
    Rice noodle sheets "with everything" toppings

    On the right side, red text:
    Lobster hot pot
    A kind of fish (Ca Mu) steamed with something
    A bivalve (clams? mussels?) steamed with minced lime leaf (wow sounds so good)
    Rice noodle bowl with bi (shredded pork skin), grilled pork and spring roll

    This is definitely worth checking out as a group, thanks Melanie!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Alice Patis

      That is funny! But no wonder, this place is practically invisible from the street. The building is right on McLaughlin and Story roads and the lead tenant on the signage is an insurance company. Basically, it's the corner notch cut out of the parking lot for the mall and I think there's a fence or hedge around it so it's not really visible from the mall. The only way that I spotted it is that when I was driving on Story Rd from 101 toward the mall, traffic was congested and slowed down as I was passing the driveway into the cafe parking lot. The striped awning was within my peripheral field of vision and caught my eye.

      Thanks a bunch for the translation aid. I hope to hear more about it from the South Bay denizens.

    2. Thanks for the heads up, Melanie! It must be pretty challenging to find if Alice wasn't able to spot it. Your photo w/ the awning helps to know what to look for. This place sounds definitely worth checking out. Hopefully the cheap paper menus are temporary. It did look strange next to your "fancy" scalloped plate. The lobster looked delicious...

      1 Reply
      1. re: Carb Lover

        It's a mixed blessing for now. I think this spot would be even more popular if potential customers could see/find it. With the Eurostyling of the decor and cooks garbed in chef's coats, the cock-eyed photocopied menus are anachronistic. The expansion space will add another 5000 square feet and have table service, so we'll see some changes, i'm sure.

        The lobster pieces were expertly cooked. But the puddle of oil that drained off the noodles on my otherwise empty plate . . .

      2. I've dined here twice, but not for a couple of months now.

        The first time, due to inattention, I accidentally ordered two similar dishes (crusty fried shrimp appetizers). However, both were excellent. One in particular I loved - shrimp balls wrapped around a cooked whole quail egg, fried crusty brown, and served with nuoc cham.

        The second time, the steam table offerings looked so good and were such a bargain that I tried those. If I remember correctly, I selected a nice shrimp and vegetable stir-fry and some of my beloved Vietnamese beef stew. The stir-fry was good but not distinguished in any way, but the stew was steaming hot, fragrant with five-spice, and loaded with meat and gelatinous tendon chunks and carrots and potatoes. I think that the steam table lunch was $5.95, or at least it was two months ago.

        This thread is making me want to go back again. Office holiday lunch is scheduled for today, or I'd be going there in a couple of hours!

        1 Reply
        1. re: teela brown

          Thanks for the report. The steam table section was empty at the time I was there and I wondered if it was in use or not. I had a table facing the section where the salad orders are assembled, as shown here,

        2. A couple more data points: the pho dac biet is lousy here. Cloudy and dilute stock, so-so meats. Hu tieu stock is better, but not great. However, the plates of fried thingies: green sticky rice and shrimp tempura or the shrimp banh tom chien that we saw go by looked great.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            When I get down that way I feel like a giant magnet sucks me into Thien Long for Cha Ca Ha Noi (or whatever they call it on their menu)- convince me to try another place!

            1. re: P. Punko

              I love bun cha ca hanoi too, so I don't blame you, though I've not been to Thien Long yet after all these years. Do lend a hand exploring the menu, if you can pull yourself away.

          2. I was in this area and had time to stop for lunch today. The original location was closed and will re-open in a few days for takeout and steam table orders. On the opposite side of the same building, the new larger space is open & serving the exact same (photocopied paper) menu, plus beer & wine.

            I had a hard time deciding between all the interesting sounding salads, and settled on the crystal seaweed salad (#4). I also wanted something standard to compare to other places, so added the banh cuon ho tay (#5 on Specials back page).

            I’ve never had crystal seaweed before. It has a crunchy texture and almost zero taste of the sea, but adds a refreshing and light taste & texture. The seaweed not only topped the salad, but was also mixed in among the rest of the salad: shaved-thin slices of cucumber, carrot, celery, green onion, lean pork loin, long tubular slices of (tender) squid, fried shallots, and sesame seeds (a lot of sesame seeds). A sticky sweet-tart dressing is on the side but the salad is already fully dressed with a fish-sauce based dressing with a slight aftertaste of something I can’t identify. The kitchen has a certain care to the salad prep: the lean pork and squid seemed pre-dressed in order to soak in the dressing’s flavors, but the very thin veggies were still crisp and not dressing-logged. The shallots seemed too crunchy to be house-fried, but tasted house-fried. There was a large pool of dressing under the large leaf lettuce garnish, but the salad didn’t taste overdressed.

            Picture of crystal seaweed salad:

            Picture showing individual components better:

            The banh cuon arrived disappointingly only-warm, not steaming hot. But the plate was really satisfying and the banh tom (fried shrimp & sweet potato fritter) was to die for (if you like fried foods), shatteringly crispy-crunchy with a slight carby chew, the huge prawn with real flavor in its head, a meaty body and airy-crispy legs & tail. The dressing was weak, vinegar based and too sweet (but that’s just like everywhere else). I generally prefer cha (pork patty) to gio (beef “bologna”), so I was glad for it here. There were some non-standard toppings – the cha gio spring roll, crispy and non-greasy, with a packed filling of mostly pork which was yummy just by itself, and the nem chua (bright pink thing), which I usually enjoy but seemed out of place this time (especially with its occasional whole peppercorn). The sprouts were appropriately blanched (and trimmed), the lettuce & mint fresh, and the fried shallots plentiful. The banh cuon are the thanh tri type: little bunches of plain sheets, not the rolled kind with meat filling. One nitpick is that after they steamed the banh cuon, they layered a couple sheets at a time then bunched them together, instead of bunching together individual sheets, the result being the little bunches are thicker (more dense) than usual.

            Picture of banh cuon:

            Service was attentive except I had a hard time getting anyone’s attention for the check. The male owner/manager was friendly and seemed proud of their menu. He suggested the lobster noodles, banh canh, and the “french” dishes (but I had already ordered). The servers are well-dressed in stiff jackets or shirts, even the cooks are well-dressed. It seems like one of the flashy places opening these days in the toniest neighborhoods of Ho Chi Minh City: a menu more unique than the usual Slanted-Door clones, doing more (or more different) things. But it’s got the prices of a neighborhood hole-in the wall. I’m eager to return, especially if I can get a group together.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Alice Patis

              Splendid, the Alice Patis seal of approval! I'm glad to hear that the new space has opened. We're hearing about so many closings, it's great to see someone who's succeeding and expanding. I hope that the price-value ratio will hold up.

              1. re: Alice Patis

                Actually, that kind of banh cuon is not a hot dish and should never be served that way. When it's hot, it's more porous, so it soaks up and dilutes the flavor of the fish sauce, requiring you to use more sauce than you should. It would also cook the lettuce and cucumber (which should be fresh--the only veggie that should be cooked is the sprouts, which is usually steamed) and change the taste and texture of the banh cuon itself, which for most people goes unnoticed, but for me is quite an abomination. Vietnamese food, even a simple dish, has so many dimensions and is very very specific!!