Tag Archives: Vietnamese

Sinoinsocal? But You’re in NorCal…

Whenever I talk to someone about this blog, sometimes I’m asked why it’s called sinoinsocal. I mean, sure, I am Chinese but I certainly don’t live in Southern California. So what gives with this sort-of odd name?

Well let’s back track all the way back to 2011, a year and a half before I published my first post. As some of my readers know (and as it is outlined on my “about” page), my blog is dedicated in honor of my mom and it was in the fall of 2011 that my mom had a couple of severe strokes that precipitated to her passing in 2012. Because of her strokes, I immediately moved from Baltimore back to Southern California.

Pho Ga at Pho Nguyen Hue

Pho Ga at Pho Nguyen Hue

More specifically, I moved back to Irvine, where I graduated from college a couple years prior. It was during my time in college that I ate around Orange County amazingly diverse and large Asian communities. Whether it was some of the best pho I’ve ever had in Little Saigon or the most delicious bowls of beef noodle soup in Irvine’s various Taiwanese restaurants, eating Asian food in Orange County was such a delight.

But of course, most people’s vision of Orange County is something akin to what they have seen in the hit mid-2000s show “The OC” or the original version of The Real Housewives series set in the gated community of Coto de Caza. That is to say, the popular image is of rich white people with sun kissed skin, money for everything they want, and lots of time spent frolicking on the beach or shopping at high end malls. And while this kind of life is definitely representative of parts of Orange County, it’s really just a small portion of what, in reality, is one of the most diverse counties in the United States.

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Orange County is home of the largest Vietnamese community in the United States with nearly 190,000 Vietnamese residents. You can see the large Vietnamese presence when you drive on streets like Bolsa and Brookhurst where strip mall after strip mall are filled with Vietnamese shops and restaurants. Right next door is Garden Grove, with a large Korean community and some of the best Korean BBQ in Southern California. And just 15-20 minutes down the 405 or 5 (without traffic) is Irvine, where a huge Taiwanese community means there are multiple great places to get everything from Taiwanese fried chicken cutlets to bowls of lu rou fan. This doesn’t even include the large Persian and Latino communities in the county too.

So when I moved back to Southern California in the fall of 2011 to be closer to my mom, I wanted to showcase another side of Orange County, one filled with bowls of tasty pho instead of fake tans. Unfortunately, an opportunity to work a campaign for a now wonderful Congresswoman (and one of my best bosses ever) and my mom’s cardiac arrest and eventual passing meant I wouldn’t write a blog post until I lived in Denver.

Though with all those twists and turns (and 2 more moves later), I still think that more people should know about the wonderful Asian food that dots Orange County. Thankfully, a few other food writers with a more national audience has done that too. So before you head to Disneyland on your next trip, be sure to check out David Chan’s article and guide to Chinese food in Irvine or the Orange County Register’s guide to Little Saigon.

And if you want to know what are some of my favorite places in Orange County, here are a few below:

  • Broddard Restaurant – Great Vietnamese restaurant in Little Saigon
  • Cham Sut Gol – Wonderful Korean BBQ in Garden Grove
  • J Zhou Oriental Cuisine – The best dim sum in Orange County, almost rivaling those in the San Gabriel Valley
  • Pho Nguyen Hue – Some of the best chicken pho I’ve ever had
  • Yu’s Kitchen – Solid Taiwanese fair in Irvine
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Cleveland, OH

Los Angeles. San Francisco. New York City. Those are the places most people think of as the cities to go to for good Asian food in America. Cleveland, Ohio, would likely not be on anyone’s mind. Despite its relatively bland and uninspiring reputation, I felt compelled to try the Asian food in the city during my brief time there last weekend to witness the marriage of two wonderful friends. This was reinforced when, much to my surprise, Cleveland had a couple restaurants that scored fairly well in the Dim Sum Rankings I compiled last year. Sadly, I didn’t get enough time to eat at all the restaurants I wanted to go to, but here are thoughts on the two that I did manage to squeeze in with my 36 hours in town.

Saigon
2061 E 4th Street
Cleveland, OH 44115

On Thursday I arrived in Cleveland shortly before game 4 of the NBA finals. After I dropped my bag off at the place I was staying, I decided to wander and explore downtown Cleveland a little bit. Unbeknownst to me, the Quicken Loans Arena where the Cleveland Cavaliers play is right next to downtown, so nearly all the streets were packed and my cell phone data became non-existent. I panicked a little as I was essentially flying blind on where to eat, without access to Yelp, Chowhound, or the travel recommendations of my friends. So as I turned into the pedestrian mall of East 4th Street, I was anxious. However, I saw the sign for Saigon and vaguely remembered that it was on my friends’ travel recommendations for the wedding. I breathed a little easier and went in to grab a table.

I sat down and browsed the menu, which was a little smaller than the pan-Vietnamese menus I was used to. I did, however, notice that the menu had both southern and central Vietnamese dishes so I proceeded to ask the server what they thought was best. Given the recommendation, I order the Bún bò Huế and then some crispy spring rolls (or what most Americans would refer to as egg rolls). My thoughts on them below:

Bun bo Hue at Saigon

Bun bo Hue at Saigon

  • Bún bò Huế – While this version doesn’t have oxtail or pork knuckle, this is possibly the best version of this dish I’ve had without either item. Most attempts with just beef shank are too thin and water/brothy but this version had a very nice slight thickness and had a decent amount of lemongrass and shrimp paste. They did add other cuts of beef like beef meatballs to make up for the lack of oxtail. I was almost tempted to order another bowl.
Chả giò at Saigon

Chả giò at Saigon

  • Chả giò (crispy spring rolls) – These fried spring rolls were fried perfectly, though I felt they had slightly too much pork. That, in and of itself is, not a bad thing. I just wish it had a little more glass noodles, carrots, and seasoning to balance it out. It paired very well with the excellent fish sauce though.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Saigon. There are even Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area that would be negatively compared to this delightful place in the middle of downtown Cleveland. I can see why my friends like this place.

Emperor’s Palace
2136 Rockwell Ave
Cleveland, OH 44114

Given that I had no obligations for lunch on Friday, I decided to eat some dim sum. I chose Emperor’s Palace because it placed ever so slightly above the more popular Li Wah in my dim sum rankings and I only had one lunch meal in town. So the next morning, after I had laundered and pressed my clothes for the wedding later that day, I drove over to Emperor’s Palace in Cleveland’s old Chinatown.

Entering the restaurant I sat down at one of their many open tables. Normally the relative lack of people at the restaurant would worry people, but the few other tables occupied were of Chinese families and friends talking loudly in Cantonese, greatly relieving me. I browsed the menu and ordered the following:

Dim Sum at Emperor's Palace

Dim Sum at Emperor’s Palace

  • Emperor’s Steam Shrimp Dumpling – I give credit to Emperor’s Palace that they make their dim sum from scratch using fresh (as possible) shrimp. While the skin was a little bit too thick, the shrimp filling was nice, especially given that many dim sum places outside large coastal metro areas tend to use freezer burnt frozen shrimp.
  • Turnip Cake – These also showed signs of being made from scratch with nice bits of shredded and mashed daikon. The texture could have been more refined, but it was grilled fairly nicely with a crispy exterior but soft interior.
  • Egg Custard Bun – These buns were petite but really nice. The custard was sweet but not overpowering and the buns were nice and fluffy instead of oversteamed and soggy as some other restaurants might do.
  • Sao Mai – These were by far the worst item I had. Why they did try hard with a handmade pork filling and light wonton wrappers, I felt that these were oversteamed. The pork tasted a little overcooked and chewy while the wonton wrapper fell apart and tasted sticky. At least they didn’t just reheat some frozen aisle sui mai though, which I definitely can’t say of some other places.

All in all it was definitely better than many dim sum restaurants outside of the big 3 of LA, San Francisco, and NYC. After swinging by Li Wah right after just to check it out, I do wish I had gone there instead, though it’s great to know Cleveland residents are not left wanting, with two good choices for dim sum.

I just wished I had more time in Cleveland because I felt that 36 hours was definitely not enough time to even explore the Asian food options of the area, which showed tremendous signs of promise just from these two restaurants. I’d even argue that Cleveland has a better Asian food scene than Philadelphia, even though Philly has a still thriving Chinatown. I suppose it just means I have another excuse to do a Midwestern road trip, not only to see some friends, but to eat some great food.

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Pho Ngoon, San Gabriel

Phở Ngoon
741 East Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776

When a American thinks of pho, they usually think of a beef noodle soup with a rich beef broth based spiced with a fair amount of cinnamon and star anise, thin rice noodles, and a wide variety of accoutrements that include Thai basil, culantro, and raw pepper slices. Well forget about all of that when you go to Phở Ngoon as they serve Hanoi/northern style phở.

What’s the difference you might ask? While I’m no expert, from my knowledge the much less lush and more harsh land of Northern Vietnam means that the people there have less fresh herbs and spices. Therefore the broth is typically simpler too the point that some may call it “bland.” However, you might also say that northern style phở is more “traditional” given that French and Chinese colonial influence in the north gave rise to the dish and, thus, phở in its more original form likely resembles northern style more closely.

So when I discovered that Phở Ngoon served Northern Vietnamese cuisine, I rushed to eat there at my next trip trip to LA, which happened to be this weekend. I stepped into the restaurant around 11:30AM when they were starting to get busy and took a look at their one sheet simple menu with maybe up to a couple dozen dishes, max. After asking the server for some of his recommendations, I ordered the following:

Pho Tai Lan at Pho Ngoon

Pho Tai Lan at Pho Ngoon

  • Pho Tai Lan – The beef in this dish is stir fried with garlic before it melds with the broth and noodles. While the broth on the whole was lighter than the usual Saigon style phở we have ubiquitous in the US, there were definitely tons of minced garlic to the point it was almost overpowering. However, the beef was marinated and cooked very nice and tender. The phở noodles were cooked decently too. They had slightly fewer accoutrements than a typical phở place, but I only sprinkled some bean sprouts as to try to stick as closely to Northern Vietnamese style as possible. Overall a dish I enjoyed and would eat again.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee at Pho Ngoon

Vietnamese Iced Coffee at Pho Ngoon

  • Cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese Iced Coffee) – The iced coffee not only was contained in its tiny press coffee filter, but it was served in mason jars as well. Hipster/modern yuppie drinking glasses aside, the coffee mixed in really well with the condensed milk. Blended together it might be my third favorite blended dark caffeine/milk drink; following Hong Kong style milk tea and Taiwanese style boba.
Pho Cuon at Pho Ngoon

Pho Cuon at Pho Ngoon

  • Phở Cuốn – These rolls are made with wide square cut pho noodles wrapped around lettuce, grilled slices of beef, and some mint. It is then dipped into nước chấm (fish sauce). While definitely less jam packed with flavor than Vietnamese spring rolls, these rolls were very delicious and I love them even more than ‘typical’ Vietnamese spring rolls.

All in all, my visit to Phở Ngoon was a great one and I think I really like the lighter flavor of Northern Vietnamese food. As a bonus, the service was pretty nice too, especially given that there is one server/cashier. And while I’ve seen some negative or snide comments about the rotation of Top 40 (mostly EDM and hip hop) music, I felt it was fine and in line with the more modern “hip” decor.

I definitely will be back again to try some other items and I hope you will too. This feels like a great place to expand anyone’s taste in Vietnamese food.

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Tim Ky Noodle, San Diego

Tim Ky Noodle
9330 Mira Mesa Blvd, Ste A
San Diego, CA 92126

Since it’s the beginning of a new year, it’s fashionable to reflect on the past and talk about the present and future. While many blogs might talk about new years resolutions or reflect on the best of X in 2014 they have done, I’ll write about a restaurant I blogged about last year that has turned over a new leaf as this next year begins instead.

In June I blogged about Tan Ky Mi Gia and professed that I loved Vietnamese/Teochew style wonton noodle soup over the classic Cantonese wonton noodle soup. Since my post, however, the restaurant shut down and changed ownership. During the autumnal season of 2014 the new owners revamped the space giving the dining space a fresh coat of paint, wood panel siding around the benches, and sleek modern engineered wood tables. They also updated and simplified the menu to fit on one legal paper sized laminated sheet with slight changes to the recipe.

While I was sad that I could not eat at Tan Ky Mi Gia during my Southern California visit in November, I was delighted that they were opening in December, just in time for my holiday break visit. I quickly decided to head over there after my New Years celebrations to try it out and see how it compared to its previous incarnation under the old owners. I ordered the following:

Wonton and Dumpling Egg Noodle Soup

Wonton and Dumpling Egg Noodle Soup

  • Wonton and Dumpling Noodle Soup (Mi Sủi Cảo Hoành Thánh) – This was delicious and filled with a light and flavorful seafood broth and less salt/MSG than the Tan Ky Mi Gia version. The broth perfectly complemented the wontons and dumplings which were of decent size and packed with nicely seasoned filling. Perhaps I would have liked a little more shrimp in the wontons (there was more pork that I could taste) but overall pretty good. The barbeque pork was good and not dry like the Tan Ky Mi Gia version and the noodles were cooked perfectly with a nice bounce in the chew.
Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

  • Egg Rolls (Chả giò) – The egg rolls surprised me in that there was less minced pork and more shredded daikon and carrots. This was definitely not a bad thing because these egg rolls tasted perfectly balanced compared to some Vietnamese egg rolls that are too saturated with meat (and leave no room for the main course!). The fish sauce tasted great and I do love how the restaurant gave enough lettuce for all 4 egg rolls. Perhaps the only thing I would have liked to add were some bean sprouts or vermicelli with fried garlic that would have made the lettuce wrapped egg roll even more flavorful.

All in all, I love the new design and new recipes. They were lighter and more refreshing, but portions were big enough to be filling. Perhaps the one thing I might have wanted better were access to all sauces and servingware (like sauce dishes) at all tables. A little bit more attentive service would help too. I want to emphasize that the service wasn’t bad, especially for a restaurant that just opened. However, with a little more experience the service will become just as good as the food.

What’s even better is that during the month of January they are doing a 10% grand opening promotion. 10% off for a bowl of wonton noodle soup that’s originally priced at $6.49 means that San Diegans around the restaurant are in for a bargain meal. Delicious food at a very reasonable price, what more could one ask for?

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Pho A Dong, Las Cruces

Pho A Dong
504 E Amador Ave
Las Cruces, NM 88001

A couple weeks ago I took another trip to Las Cruces to do some get out the vote work and a message training to local activists. Of course, this meant that I was able to explore more of Las Cruces’ Asian food options. Thus, my coworker and I ate at Las Cruces’ other Vietnamese restaurant, Pho A Dong, which was conveniently located just mere blocks from where we did a phonebank.

In contrast to the wide space and bright flat panel TV screens that were showing Thursday Night Football in our trip to Pho Saigon, we were greeted to a restaurant that looked a little more familiar to the homey, hole in the wall Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to Albuquerque or Westminster, CA. We were greeted happily and seated promptly to a table in the middle of their relatively small, but still spacious, dining room.

After receiving our glasses of water and cup of Jasmine tea we started ordering. My coworker ordered a bowl of bun (rice noodles topped with meat, vegetables, and fish sauce) and I ordered the following:

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

  • Egg Rolls – These were pretty delicious and reminiscent of what I can get in Southern California. The egg rolls were packed with pork and julienned carrots. Best of all, it came with lettuce and extra slices of carrots to make the perfect egg roll wrap to dip into the fish sauce.
Pho Dac Biet

Pho Dac Biet

  • Pho Dac Biet- The broth was fairly good, although since the restaurant owners are from Northern Vietnam it could have been a little spicier. The beef was a little overcooked, though the beef balls were done just right. The noodles were also slightly overdone. All in all I think it edges out Pho Saigon but not by much.

All in all the food was pretty decent. It might have not blown me away but I am pleasantly delighted that Las Cruces has not one, but two fairly good places that people can enjoy delicious, authentic Vietnamese food. That’s more than I can say about our state capitol of Santa Fe.

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Asian Food In American Politics

When you walk up the stairs to the second floor dining room of the Hunan Dynasty restaurant in Washington DC, you will pass by a set of signed photos adorning the wall. No, these aren’t the actors and celebrities you might find at various longstanding and tired restaurants in New York or Los Angeles. These are, in a rather Washingtonian fashion, signed photos of various political figures in the United States, from both parties, including former First Lady Hillary Clinton. Now, it’s not the food that draws these throngs of politicians (the food is rather mediocre), but rather it’s their location, just a couple blocks from the Capitol building.

Given its convenient location, Hunan Dynasty has been richly rewarded, especially as members of Congress increasingly are in a cycle of perpetual fundraising. A search on Political Party Time, a website by the Sunlight Foundation to spotlight and create more transparency on Congressional fundraising, shows that Hunan Dynasty has been the location of at least 100 fundraisers since 2006. It’s an equal opportunity, bipartisan host of these prolific fundraisers as well, with events helping candidates across the spectrum, from liberal lion Senator Chuck Schumer of New York to socially conservative and failed Republican candidate for Missouri Senate, former Representative Todd Akin.

Combo of Dim Sum Plates by pchow98 https://flic.kr/p/8PiMC8

Combo of Dim Sum Plates by pchow98 https://flic.kr/p/8PiMC8

Now, Hunan Dynasty may be the Asian restaurant that has hosted the most number of political fundraisers, but it is certainly not the only restaurant to do so. In New Mexico, StreetFood Asia, a personal favorite restaurant of mine, was host to a fundraiser supporting the Senatorial bid of State Auditor Hector Balderas. In the Bay Area, Congresswoman Judy Chu had a fundraiser at Dynasty Seafood Restaurant in Cupertino, CA, co hosted by a number of Asian American leaders. However, all of these one-off political fundraisers at Asian restaurants pales in comparison the the volume of Asian food present in the events supporting Representative Adam Schiff of California. Schiff’s candidate committee hosts a semi-annual spectacular sushi luncheon, a semi-annual fundraiser featuring Korean barbeque, and even a fundraiser at Lunasia, which is often on lists as one of the top restaurants serving dim sum in Los Angeles. Now I don’t know why Schiff has a prolific number of fundraisers featuring various Asian food, though I suspect his district’s pre-2012 boundaries that included heavily Asian cities like Alhambra and Monterey Park and current district’s large Asian populations in areas like Glendale and Los Angeles’ Thai Town has something to do with it.

While I can only speculate on the reasons why Schiff continually has Asian food fundraisers, the growth of Asian American communities across the United States is increasingly influencing the elections and activities of political leaders across the country. Representative Loretta Sanchez, who represents a heavily Asian and Latino district in central Orange County, has regular visits to her large Vietnamese constituency. Further down in my hometown of San Diego, the competitive election in California’s 52nd Congressional District has brought dueling press conferences and statements by both candidates on who has greater support among the Asian American community in San Diego. However, the candidates aren’t reaching the broader Asian American community just by televised press conferences. In fact, Representative Scott Peters (who, for full disclosure, I support) has been seen campaigning by talking to voters during dim sum at Jasmine Seafood Restaurant and held his AAPI campaign kickoff at Pangea, a Taiwanese bakery in the heart of San Diego’s pan-Asian commercial corridor of Convoy Street.

Char Kway Teow at Street Food Asia

Char Kway Teow at Street Food Asia

In district events at Asian restaurants and other locations that serve Asian food aren’t the sole provenance of West Coast political figures or Democrats, however. This year’s heated race in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District in suburban DC to replace retiring Representative Frank Wolf is an example on how the large growth of Asian Americans is impacting politics across the country. Recently, NPR aired a story about the growing Asian community in Northern Virginia and how candidates Barbara Comstock and John Foust have purposefully outreached to Asian voters, including dueling Korean language ads. The Washington Post even reports on how Comstock has highlighted her attendance at the Punjabi Mela Festival and how the Republican National Convention hosted an event in support of her at Woo Lae Oak, a popular Korean restaurant in Tyson’s Corner. And Comstock is not the only Republican candidate the party has hosted Asian specific outreach events for. Just this year, the Republican Party has hosted an event at a Filipino restaurant for Ed Gillespie, their candidate for Virginia Senate, as well as an event with former Representative Joseph Cao in a Vietnamese restaurant around New Orleans.

While the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is not homogenous and has a diverse range of political beliefs, immigration status, socio-economic status, and other demographic factors, its growing size means that political candidates from city council to Congress are paying attention.

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Pho Saigon, Las Cruces

Pho Saigon
1160 El Paseo Rd #D12-14
Las Cruces, NM 88001

I have been traveling a lot for work recently, mainly in Southern New Mexico. Most of these places are areas that I have only stopped briefly in on my way to San Diego via Tuscon (Deming) or places I have never been before but really loved when I went there (Silver City). Of course, these work trips give me a chance to taste how Asian food is in other parts of New Mexico.

On one of those days, my coworker and I decided to eat some Vietnamese food. After working and taking a brief rest, we drove a couple miles from our hotel to Pho Saigon, one of two places in Las Cruces that serves Vietnamese food, at least when it comes to doing a Google search.

We arrived and quickly were seated given that it was around 9PM and only a couple tables were occupied. Our server quickly gave us cups of water as well as the Jasmine tea I ordered as we browsed the menu for our appetizer and entree selections. After waiting a little while for our server to come back, we ordered the following:

Combination Pho

Combination Pho

  • Egg Rolls – The 3 egg rolls were long and thin, reminding me a little bit more of lumpia. The filling was pretty good and came with a nice side of nuoc cham. I did wish it came with a little bit more garnish and lettuce, but they were very tasty nonetheless.
  • Crispy Fried Shrimp – My coworker and I definitely didn’t think it was some very battered, deep fried shrimp when we ordered it. To say the least, the breading was too thick and also overcooked the shrimp. To say this dish was a disappointment is an understatement.
  • Pho Tai Nam, Gan, Gau, Sach, Bo Vien – Their combination pho was nice with a more subtle broth that gave it good flavor but not so much as to overpower the flavor of the beef slices, noodles, and other ingredients. The noodles were cooked decently, not as chewy as I like, but definitely not overcooked either. The beef slices were nice and came rare, as it should with beef balls a nice touch. I just wish they had larger bowls (this was their largest) with more noodles and beef.

I did not try my coworkers bun (thin rice vermicelli) bowl, but it did look delicious. All in all I feel that the pho hit the spot, even if it could have been larger, while the appetizers could have been improved. Despite that, however, it was definitely pretty decent Vietnamese food and I am pretty thrilled that those who live in and around Las Cruces can have a taste of Vietnamese food.

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Tan Ky Mi Gia, San Diego

Tan Ky Mi Gia
9330 Mira Mesa Blvd, Ste A
San Diego, CA 92126

I have a confession to make today – I prefer Vietnamese/Teochow style wonton noodle soup over Cantonese style wonton noodle soup. What’s the difference you may ask? Cantonese style is all about the light and freshness of the seafood broth and shrimp. It’s wonderful, but sometimes I prefer a flavor that is a little bit bolder and adds items I could not get in a simple bowl of wonton noodle soup with just egg noodles, shrimp wontons, broth, and maybe some vegetables. You see, Vietnamese/Teochow style wonton noodle soup has all that Cantonese style wonton soup has, but more. The broth has an extra kick due to the addition of chives and sometimes fried green onions. As a bonus, Vietnamese/Teochow style wonton noodle soup also gives you slices of barbecue pork, something that would cost you at least $1 extra in a Cantonese style restaurant.

All of that is to say that when I was hungry a couple weeks ago in San Diego and hanging out with family, I insisted that we go eat lunch at the local Vietnamese/Teochow style noodle soup restaurant down the street. It would be quick. It would be cheap. Most of all, it would be delicious and give me a taste of one Vietnamese dish that Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque don’t quite execute well.

When we stepped into the restaurant, we were greeted and seated immediately. After the server gave us our cups of water, we order our noodle soups. I ordered the Mi Hoanh Thanh while most of my other family members ordered dumpling noodle soups (dumplings that are slightly different than wontons in the wrappers, dumpling filling, and shape).

 Tan Ky Mi Gia

The noodle soups quickly came, as typical for most Vietnamese restaurants serving pho or mi. As usual the broth was delicious with a good, but not overpowering, punch of chives. The wontons were pretty good too with a nice amount of shrimp. The pieces of barbeque pork were slightly drier than normal, but provided a nice balance with the broth. There was also a crispy fried piece of wonton wrapper with shrimp which I don’t particularly care for, but I suppose it provides a nice little texture in the soup (similar to oyster crackers in soups).

Service is efficient with the server regularly refilling cups with water as needed. However, the prices were higher than I remember than the last time I ate here about 6-9 months ago. A bowl of wonton noodle soup now costs $7.99, which is still a bargain for any meal, but definitely a spike compared to the $5.99 I was used to for a while.

Regardless, it was a delicious and simple meal. Given that my mom introduced me to this wonderful style of Vietnamese/Teochow style cuisine (at Minh Ky in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego), I suppose my ancestors can’t frown on me too much. Good food is good food, regardless of the regional origin.

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Viet Taste, Albuquerque

Viet Taste
5721 Menaul Blvd NE
Albuquerque, NM 87110

Two weeks ago I needed a quick, cheap lunch to fill me that was close to the mall. Since I have been to both Pho Nguyen and Kim Long, I decided to go to the third, and last, Vietnamese restaurant in the area: Viet Taste.

I entered the restaurant at about 2:30 in the afternoon and was ready to eat. Since it was blistering hot outside, I skipped over the pho options and headed straight for the Com Tam (Broken Rice) plates. After taking a quick look, I decided to order the rice plate with pork chop and pork skin.

Viet Taste

After about 10-15 minutes, my food came out and something immediately struck me: this was no ordinary Vietnamese grilled pork chop. Normally Vietnamese grilled pork chops I’m used to are thinner with a rich, dark brown marinade. Instead, it came out dark red, similar to Cantonese style char siu (barbeque pork). Intrigued and hungry, I sliced away and the barbeque turned out to be pretty good and similar to a very lightly roasted char siu. The pork chop wasn’t rich in flavors from the sauce, but the meat with slight coloring, caramelization, and flavoring of the skin gave it a light, but good flavor. It was just slightly overcooked, but all in all not bad. It didn’t hurt that there was a lot of meat in the pork chop too. The pork skins were pretty good and less salty than usual, which I liked. The fish sauce could have been a little stronger, but all in all it cut through the dryness of the pork skin and the density of the pork chop very well.

Service was great as well, despite the unusually busy dining room on a Sunday mid-afternoon. Ice water glasses came out fast and were refilled very frequently.

As a bonus to this dining experience, I overheard a conversation at the next table over where two non-Asian parents told their child to eat the slice of daikon on their plate. The parents described daikon as “white carrot” which I found amusingly appropriate, given that carrots are “red daikon” in Cantonese. Viet Taste may not be the best Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque, but it’s a solid contender with some of the most delightfully interesting conversations in town.

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Pho Saigon, Houston

Pho Saigon
2808 Milam St., Suite D
Houston, TX 77006

One big thing I was excited about when I was in Houston for a conference was to try their Vietnamese food. Houston has the third largest Vietnamese population in the United States, after Orange County’s enclave of Vietnamese around Westminster and San Jose. Given the density of the Vietnamese population as well as my experience with Vietnamese food going to school in Orange County, I wanted to see how Houston stacked up.

Pho Saigon 1

I originally wanted to go to Mai’s, considered by many to be the top Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, but since it was closed on Sundays I decided to go to the ostensibly second best reviewed Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Saigon. I took a cab a couple miles to Midtown and landed in a small strip mall, which seemed auspicious in my mind given the plethora of great hole in the wall Vietnamese places in tiny Westminster strip malls. Upon entering the place, the feel got even better as it seemed very much like a Vietnamese restaurant in Southern California – bare linoleum tables stuff with condiments, busy servers flying over the place with steaming bowls of pho, and barely decorated walls.

I sat down for my quick meal before my ride to the airport and ordered their combination beef pho, #44 on their menu. Since I love Vietnamese egg rolls and typically order 2 items to see a better spectrum of the kitchen’s ability, I ordered a small plate with 2 egg rolls as well.

Pho Saigon 2

Within 7 minutes, the bowl of pho came to my table. I immediately sipped the broth and found it spectacular in taste. The beef was not too strong and balanced well with the taste of star anise, cinnamon, ginger, and onion. The noodles were cooked fairly well, though perhaps just slightly more overcooked than I liked. The slices of beef were heavenly, seasoned well and just rare. They were also generous with the slices of meatballs, which was an added bonus. The egg rolls came later, and those were done superbly as well. It was crunchy without being too oily and the filling was dense and well seasoned, without being overwhelming. I was disappointed that they did not include more slices of pickled daikon and carrots, as well as leaves of lettuce to wrap the egg rolls in. However, that is just a minor error in an overall superior meal.

The service was efficient, but friendly as well. They generously refilled water, even as busy and moderately understaffed as they were. When I requested a little sauce plate for my sriracha and hoisin sauce mixture, they were eager to oblige. Finally, the check was delivered right after I was finished and I paid up at the counter as is customary.

Overall, I would say that Orange County is still the place to beat in terms of Vietnamese food, and pho in particular, but Houston gives a good run for the money. The prices were comparable as well, which was satisfying to my wallet. The best pho of my life still remains at Pho Nguyen Hue in Westminster, but Houston is certainly a destination for Vietnamese food in America.

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