I just figured out that this place is not part of the chain called Banh Cuon Tay Ho which has 7 locations in Southern Cal and the Bay Area. I came here a few years ago and had their banh cuon, what I thought was their specialty since they have so many photos of banh cuon plates up on the wall. It was just ok and really oily so I havent been back. But the post about duck noodle soup got me back last Friday.
They now have a $3.95 specials menu, but its all in Vietnamese. Its super long, and includes various banh appetizers, noodle soups, rice porridge, broken-rice plates, rice noodle bowls (bun). Almost every kind of noodle soup is on this $3.95 menu:
Bun Bo Hue (Spicy Beef with spaghetti shaped rice noodles)
Bun Oc (Snails-tomato with rice vermicelli)
Bun Rieu (Crab-tomato with I think rice vermicelli)
Hu Tieu (Seafood & pork in light broth with rice noodles)
Bo Kho (Stewed beef with rice noodles)
Banh Canh (Pork with round, firm, translucent noodles)
And of course, Pho Ga and Pho Bo
But sadly, no duck noodle soup. For that, you have to go to the regular menu (which is another really long menu that includes all of the banh cuon dishes.
So I ordered the duck noodle soup (Mi Vit Tiem), $5.75, and from the Appetizers section of the $3.95 menu, the Banh Uot Thit Nuong (rice flour rolls with grilled meat and lettuce).
Both came at the same time (so annoying) after a wait that seemed long for a noodle house. I dont mind waiting for my soup, but the banh uot rolls shouldve taken 2 minutes tops; they mightve even been pre-made judging from the cold temperature.
Since I wasnt going to let hot noodle soup sit while I eat my appetizer, I started with the soup. As you can see, the broth is very dark, and wonderfully scalding hot. It tasted very deep and flavorful, and not overly heavy on what my mom calls Chinese herbal medicine smell which I think means five-spice and anise. The broth tasted of long-simmered duck, and lots of mushrooms, but also heavy of salt and MSG. My tongue was parched the whole rest of the day and had that sweet sticky feeling in the back of my throat. There is not much oil, just a sheen of tiny oil droplets on the surface. The noodles are nicely firm with good bite. Good sprinkling of scallions and cilantro to counter the meaty broth.
The duck meat itself was not too great. Meat was stringy and in places tough. Though theres not much fat (a good thing), the skin was bitter from being too burnt. And I guess the duck flavor left the meat and was in the broth, because it wasnt much different than eating dark meat chicken. The soup includes 2 halves of a baby bok choy and 3 very fat black mushrooms. It got quite monotonous after I ate the veggies. Even if I didnt have the banh uot rolls waiting for me, I just could not finish half that broth, it was just so salty and heavy. I don know if Im not a duck soup fan or this version is just too heavy. Maybe if youre a fan of Ramen Halu (Im not), youd like this.
The banh uot rolls were really oily. I could hardly hold onto it with my fingers (let alone with chopsticks), they were that oily. Yeah I shouldve seen that coming since the banh cuon is so oily. By the way, Ive figured out that banh uot is totally different from banh cuon, but banh uot thanh tri is similar to banh cuon. Ill start a different post on the general board on banh uot vs. banh cuon.
Anyway, the banh uot wrapper was bad but the filling of grilled meat was ultra-flavorful and finely chopped. The dipping sauce was good; it tasted like peanut dipping sauce for goi cuon but had no visible peanuts, and more taste of the Vietnamese fermented soybean sauce which I cant remember the Vietnamese name of. So full, I ate only half of one roll and took the other 3 halves home, and the leftovers that night tasted exactly the same, so I think these were pre-made.
All in all, I dont think this place is dumbing down the food that much. More like it takes shortcuts to make cheap basic fare. This is based on having tried only 3 things so far, but from the look of the 2 menus, and seeing the various dishes and soups going to other tables, it seems to cater to Vietnamese who want ultra cheap food. Plus the atmosphere is divey and service is nonexistent. Granted, I think this was the first time I saw a table of only white people at Grand Century Mall, but maybe thats because of the Merc review. I guess I think of Lees Sandwiches and Slanted Door when I think of dumbing down Vietnamese food. Yeah, I just put Slanted Door in the same category of Lees so shoot me.
Anyway, the food isnt great, but I think its pretty authentic. I saw a table get served a huge plate of various greens as part of their Fire Pot (lau) and I couldnt name (either in English or Vietnamese) half of the Asian greens and herbs on that plate, a sign they use uncommon ingredients.
Anyway, if I worked closer, Id probably come here often for lunch, tempted by that long list of $3.95 specials. Even if its not great you cant beat $3.95.