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Mar 3, 2009 06:19 AM

Nha Toi (San Jose) - Vietnamese worth a detour, maybe even a special journey...

Had a fantastic dinner here last weekend. One of the best Vietnamese meals I’ve had, if not the best. The menu is packed with things I’ve never seen on any other menu – it was hard to narrow down our choices enough so that we wouldn’t overwhelm our small party. I was really impressed with everything – flavors were clear, complex, balanced, and fresh. I didn’t record the Vietnamese names of the dishes – I was able to find some of the names from past reports, and will have to just describe the rest.

Chicken wings marinated in fish sauce, fried in butter – the paper napkins provided don’t quite hold up to the buttery residue these wings leave on your fingers, but no matter. These were savory little morsels, and a great way to start the evening.

Goi Ca - a sort of raw fish larb – small pieces of chopped fish, well seasoned with lime juice, sugar and fish sauce, topped with fragrant herbs, sesame seeds, chili, red onion and fried shallot, and served with fried shrimp chips. Really well balanced – the memory of an overacidic ceviche at Mochica in SF is still fresh in my mind, so I really appreciated the expert seasoning on this dish.

Ca Nuc Kho Mia – Norwegian mackerel, braised in a brown caramel-based sauce, with a legitimate chili kick. This was delicious – the fish was meltingly soft, and the sauce was by far the most compelling of this type I’ve ever had. We soaked it up with bits of a crispy rice cake (Com Chay).

Sweet and sour soup – a seemingly simple fish broth that revealed depth and complexity as I sipped it – it comes to the table over Sterno with just the fish and chunks of pineapple in it. It’s accompanied by a large platter of raw tomato, bean sprouts, loofah, okra, and an herb I couldn’t identify, all to be added to the soup by the diner once the broth comes to a boil.

The gratis dessert was a warm version of 3-color bean drink – pureed yellow bean, coconut milk, tapioca, a few colored jellies. Simple, sweet and satisfying after a meal of pungent (yet somehow refined) flavors.

I’m definitely planning to go back – it’s worth the drive from Oakland. I actually timed myself driving back to see how realistic it was – without traffic, it’s only 45 minutes… I’ll offset my carbon footprint some other way.

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  1. Hey, the link didn't take:

    Nha Toi Restaurant
    460 E William St, San Jose, CA 95112

    1. Thanks for reminding me of Nha Toi. It's been a while since my last visit, but I'm glad to hear it's still very good. I wonder if the same people own it as did a couple of years ago--they were very nice!

      1. Inspired by this post, last weekend I convinced friends of divergent tastes to make a lunch stop with me here on our way to parts further south. I found the fish sauce chicken wings and the Ca Nuc Kho Mia (especially the exceptionally well-balanced sauce) to be as good as Daveena said. Other dishes we tried were of varying adventurousness: fried pork intestines, rotisserie chicken, pineapple fried rice -- all skillfully made but not as exciting as the wings and mackerel. I guess the take-home message is that the "conventional" dishes are as good as is necessary to please those that order them. On the other hand, the service might not be: perhaps due to language difficulties, some orders were missed at first, and making a correction to the bill required a great deal of effort. To me this was a small price to pay, but it may be hard to convince those friends to drive me out there again.

        3 Replies
        1. re: bradluen

          Glad the food was good - but you're right, service can be problematic. It was friendly but spastic the day we went - with only one other party there, our server kept forgetting to bring rice, refill our teapot, etc. His English was quite fluent, and he was really sweet, but we couldn't figure out why he looked so harried when there was almost no one else in the restaurant.

          1. re: bradluen

            How was the fried pork intestines? I was tempted to order that dish as well. Were the intestines crispy?

            1. re: luckytomato

              The funky-smelling intestines were a little on the chewy side. I enjoyed them, but wouldn't prioritise ordering them.

          2. Thanks to Daveena's recommendation, I stopped by Nha Toi this past Saturday afternoon for lunch. We were the only people there. The hostess was very gracious and patient as I looked over their pretty extensive menu. The two of us ordered the Canh Ga Chien Bo (butter fried chicken wings), the Bo Tai Chang (tender slices of beef with lime and onions), and the Suon Heo Kho Man (carmelized spareribs).

            The chicken wings were great, simply fried and sprinkled with bits of fried garlic. I had meant to order the wings marinated in fish sauce, but I'll get that the next time.

            The beef dish was served cold, good but mild in flavor

            The spareribs were to die for! They came in a very hot pot covered in a gorgeous and delicious carmel sauce that went very well with the white rice that was served with it. The flavor was very rich, with a tiny hint of fish sauce. I wanted to lick my bowl clean after I was done eating.

            I tried to order another dish, but the hostess discouraged us from ordering it, seeming to think that it might be a bit too authentic for our tastes. Now I'm very curious to see what it would have been like.

            All in all, I would definitely go back again.

            11 Replies
            1. re: luckytomato

              They really do that caramel sauce better than any other place I've been. What was the other dish you wanted to try?

              1. re: daveena

                I didn't write down the name for the other dish, but I think the description described it as slices of grilled pork, but the hostess said that the dish used pigs feet and pickles. Maybe she thought I was pointing at another dish.

                1. re: luckytomato

                  Funny, I tried to order that same dish you're thinking of, grilled pork with lemongrass, other herbs, and shrimp paste. I received the pigs feet and pickles dish instead, maybe the two are adjacent on the menu? The bowl of pigs feet came with plenty of skin, in a fatty broth. It was good, but probably our least favorite of the night.

                  We also tried the fried chicken wings, with lots of tasty fried garlic. When my friend tried to ask for nuoc cham, the server was confident and said that the wings were already marinated and good as is. He was right.

                  Last we tried the caramelized catfish claypot, which sounds just as good as the caramel sauce described in the other dishes. Not too sweet, with a nice balance, and the fish was cooked to perfection.

                  The salted lemonade was also very nice, served with club soda on the side. I'll be back.

              2. re: luckytomato

                Here are a couple photos of the Bo Tai Chang (tender slices of beef with lime and onions), and the Suon Heo Kho Man (carmelized spareribs).

                  1. re: luckytomato

                    Has anyone been back recently? I noticed there are a ton of recent 1-star reviews on yelp.

                    1. re: hong_kong_foodie

                      I haven't been in a while, but I noticed back even when I posted the original review that there was a huge discrepancy between the Yelp reviews and my own experience - the vast majority of negative reviews slam the restaurant for its service (which is admittedly scattered, at best) or its pho (which I've never ordered).

                      1. re: hong_kong_foodie

                        I've been a few times in the past year. It's still as strong as it was the first year. The braised mackerel tastes exactly the same, as dreamy as when I first had it. Other dishes I've had before are still good. I actually like the pho which was panned by some yelpers. They use tenderloin cut for the tai beef which makes it very tender (and it's properly rare), and the broth is northern style so it tastes of long simmered beef bones and lighter in spices than southern style. Also the broth is clear, so you can tell they still pay attention to detail.

                        Their strengths lie in their specials or "dac biet" board, or any of the dishes you don't find elsewhere, or any of the salads (esp. the less common salads). So you have to be somewhat adventurous; and yelpers for the most part aren't adventurous. If you search for past chowdowns here, almost everything we've ordered in the past is still great (use google to search, not the search box on this board).

                        Also as daveena says, the yelp reviews often slam the service. I usually get recognized so I get decent service but it can be scattered or hardly-there to the first-time goer. Also, it looks like a full-service style restaurant, but just expect pho-house style service and it won't seem that bad.

                        Nha Toi Restaurant
                        460 E William St, San Jose, CA 95112

                        1. re: Alice Patis

                          Thanks for the update, Alice! I haven't been to Nha Toi in a while, but I do remember enjoying the pho--and everything else we tried. I still salivate when I recall a whole fish served with a wonderful pineapple and anchovy sauce. As for the service, it was not terribly fast, but it was fine, and even very friendly at times when the staff was not too busy.

                          It's been too long since my last visit. And I'm sure that if you and/or Carb Lover merely hinted at a Nha Toi chowdown, you'd have a small crowd signing up! Say when!

                          1. re: Alice Patis

                            Alice, I've found it impossible to get that incredible quail that we had at that long-ago chowdown! Last time I asked they said they just don't offer it anymore.

                    2. the Yelp listing says it's closed. can anyone verify? i was thinking of trying it the next time i was down in SJ for work.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: drewskiSF

                        It's closed. I went by yesterday to confirm.