It was like I was in a dream. Or at least in a flashback to my childhood. I was eating my moms cooking. Only it was my moms cooking from 20 years ago, not my moms current cooking. This place cooks like my mom back before she moved to the US and started using US-grown ingredients, before she used time-saving shortcuts or added international touches to her cooking. This was simple, homey, northern Vietnamese food. Nha Toi translates to Our House and this did really seem like I was in our house.
The posts by stuart (linked below) piqued my curiosity so I went here for a recon lunch today. When I looked at the specials under the glass tabletop, I knew I had hit pay dirt. These were not your run of the mill specials you see everywhere, like Bo Luc Lac (Shaking Beef) and Goi Du Du (Green Papaya Salad), though both items are in fact in the regular menu. Out of the 20 items on this Specials Menu in Vietnamese, I recognized only the first 3. I could read all the words and understand each word, I just couldnt recognize them as dishes Id ever seen anywhere before. I looked around and saw a white board of 10 more specials, listed under the words New and Seasonal Dishes (the only English on the white board). Not to mention the regular menu (in Vietnamese and well-translated English) had 180+ dishes. I was completely bewildered. Luckily, the server helped me and described a few of the specials to me, some of which I then recognized as dishes my mom would make years ago, dishes without any names because back then I simply ate whatever she made, I never asked what it was I was eating. I knew Id never be able to decide on my own, so I went with 2 dishes she recommended.
While waiting, I perused the menu more closely and found more dishes from my childhood. Besides shaking beef and papaya salad there were many other familiar standards, as well as Pho, and there was a section of vegetarian dishes. Most items were under $10, except for seafood specials and the 7 varieties of hot pot (lau) were $20.95 or $22.95. I also noticed that some of the glass top specials are listed in the regular menu, so I was able to get the English translation of what I ordered. Unfortunately I left my whole sheet of notes at the restaurant when I left, so below is an approximation of the English translation of what I ate:
Ca Nuc Kho Mia, $8 or 9
Norwegian Mackerel braised in sauce made with sugarcane
This was meltingly tender, omega-3 fats providing great mouthfeel, with a very deep, slightly peppery sauce. Oh that sauce. Ohhhhh that sauce. And a round of applause for not making this dish sweet despite the word sugarcane in the name. And there were no pin bones, just the spine which was so soft it disintegrated in my mouth.
Canh Mong Toi/Muop (nau voi tom tuoi & rieu cua), $7.95
Soup with Vietnamese Spinach and Squash (cooked with fresh shrimp and ground crab)
The last time I had this soup was before I left home for college. Id forgotten about it until a few months ago, when I saw this kind of spinach at a farmers market and hastily bought and attempted to make it at home, for which I failed miserably because (1) I used canned broth and (2) I didnt bother to make the ground crab mini patties (the misshapen mini patties you see in Bun Rieu Crab Soup).
This version is very simple but so good. The broth might not be much more than water plus the flavor from the veggies, ground crab, and shrimp, but its simplicity is the key. The small chopped pieces of shrimp were not overcooked and the ground crab was not smelly. Some might be put off by the slippery nature of this vegetable, but I like it. I tried to find an English translation for this spinach (its not convolvulus water spinach which is rau muong). I finally found a website with a database of plant names in 60 languages (!) and rau mong toi is listed as Ceylon spinach, Indian saag, Malabar spinach, Indian spinach, East-Indian spinach, Slippery vegetable, Surinam spinach, Malabar nightshade, Vine spinach. There is a red-stem variety (Nha Toi restaurant used the green-stem variety). The squash is similar to zucchini in taste but softer; the English plant name is luffa.
Some other notes of my visit:
There is a big flat screen tv showing the World Cup game. It was muted until someone asked to turn on the sound, and then it was audible but not overly annoying.
In one corner there is a tiny space for a microphone and singer/instrumentalist (empty today).
Only 2 of the 15 or so diners were non-Asian. Mostly older crowd, mostly men.
There are various fruit shakes for $3 (add a quarter for pearl/boba), and various che (sweet bean) drinks. Tea has a flowery fragrant touch (either from chrysanthemum or osmanthus).
The paste of minced red chiles is satanically hot.
Food was pretty prompt, arriving ~10 minutes after I ordered. Soon later my server asked how things were, but after that, I was ignored as she went about bringing many various dishes to other 6 or 7 tables, nodding to my raised hand but still ignoring me. The owner/manager lady was walking around and helping, but was completely oblivious to my presence and I could not even make eye contact with her. Maybe being a solo diner sitting under the World Cup game mightve had something to do with being ignored. I finally went to the counter to pay and ask for takeout containers, and wanted to chat with the owner/manager about the food but I wouldve had to grab her for her to notice me, and she never got close enough for me to do that.
I wish I still have my notes because I scribbled names of dishes in the regular menu that I loved from my childhood. Raw beef salad with toasted rice and ginger dressing. Steamed young chicken with julienned lime leaves. Thin-sliced steamed pork served with greens/herbs and shrimp paste sauce. Minced pork and herbs in jelly/aspic. Then theres Crab with tamarind seasoning for $14.95, to compare against Vung Taus version when its crab season again. So many choices!
Also, if theres any interest, I can try to translate/describe each of their glass-top specials and todays white board specials (photos below). Link to more photos below.
Nha Toi Restaurant
480 E. William St. (btw 10th and 11th)
San Jose, CA