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North Viet @ New Loi’s – Chowdown #47 of 2003

Melanie Wong | Nov 2, 200303:40 AM

On Thursday night, our group of seven ‘hounds (including a visitor from Switzerland) were treated to a sampling of North Vietnamese specialties at New Loi’s. As the last to arrive, Malik should have been our dinner reporter. However, he invoked the “no pork” exemption, pointing out that he would not have tasted all the dishes, and the task fell to yours truly to report back. I’ll lead off and ask that others please add their comments.

I almost missed the first dish that the early arrivals had ordered as a starter - “Loi’s BBQ Fish Hanoi-style Cha Ca La Vong, $12.99 – Served with fresh dill and mint, onions, peanuts, lettuce, shrimp sauce, fish sauce and hot oil.” This dish was my reason for coming to New Loi’s. The version here is lower on tumeric than others with some other exotic spicing, and the dill is served raw on the side as a garnish rather than being cooked with the fish. To eat, you place a small piece of the fish in lettuce, top it with the shrimp sauce and garnishes (plus shrimp chips), then roll it up and dip in the nuoc cham sauce. What made this special was the use of fresh striped bass instead of the less expensive catfish. This was the favorite dish of four of the seven diners, and got my vote.

The other specialty of the house is “Banh Hoi Chao Tom Bo Nuong, $12.99 - Sugar Caned Shrimp rice noodles with mint leaves with beef”. Usually served with grilled pork, it can be ordered here with beef or chicken and we went with beef. The shrimp forcemeat wrapped around the sugar cane was unusually juicy and tender, not dry and rubbery like too many versions. The pile of gingery beef was nicely grilled and delicious, although I didn’t think the two flavors went together that well. To attack this one, first we had to wrestle free the moistened rice wrappers stuck to each other from a serving plate and lay them on our own plates. This was much like trying to pull apart Saran and keep it from reattaching to itself, and about equally unsuccessful. Then the shrimp cake was pulled off the sugar cane and placed on the wrapper with garnishes, a piece of the thin rice noodle cake and the beef and rolled up burrito style for dipping in the nuoc cham. This received one vote for favorite of the night.

Next up was “#25 Bun Cha Ha Noi, $5.95 – Northern Vietnamese BBQ pork with rice noodle”. The pieces of BBQ pork were served in a shallow dish with the exuded juices, making it sort of soupy and wet. On the side were a large skein of rice vermicelli and the ubiquitous pile of lettuce leaves for wrapping. By this point in the meal I had accumulated a big pile of spent paper napkins from all these eaten out of hand dishes and wiping drips off the table. I was getting a little tired of having to do so much food preparation at the table and longed for something I could just pick up from the plate and eat.

Relief arrived with “#14D Banh Cuon Tay Ho, $5.25 – Vietnamese steam rolls” (FudCourt’s picture below). These square-ish envelopes of rice wrapper encased crumbly ground pork and slivers of wood ears. Topped with a slice of steamed pork roll (the rubbery cold cut in banh mi) and some pickled veggies and a chiffonade of herbs and lettuce, all I had to do was put a piece on my plate and eat it with the garnishes and dipping sauces. Ahhhhhh, how easy! This was the favorite dish of one diner.

When the Vietnamese crepe - “J. Banh Xeo, $5.95 Yellow ginger pan fried crepe with shrimp and pork” – was served, I cheated and just cut off the point for my portion. I couldn’t deal with wrapping up another thing for consumption. Since I didn’t really get to the heart of it, someone else will need to describe this dish.

When Tom told me that “C3. Pho Tom Ga Nuong, $7.25 – BBQ shrimp and chicken noodle soup” was the only dish he’d ever ordered here, I was incredulous. But after trying it, I could see how one could get stuck in this very delicious rut. The complex seafood broth was a revelation, tasting of the sweet brininess of fresh shrimp, with none of the tinny or overly salted/fishy flavors of other versions. The big bowl holds only the broth and rice noodles, the grilled 5-spice chicken leg and skewer of shrimp being served on the side to be added to the soup at the table. Except that the chicken was overcooked, this would have been my top pick. This one was voted favorite by one hound (not Tom!).

The beef broth for “I. Pho Ap Chao Nuoc, $6.95 for XL – Sauteed beef and vegetable noodle soup with celery, tomato, leek” was slightly thickened and so polished and subtle vs. the aggressive anise and herbal character of others pho soups. Made with wide-cut fresh rice noodles, the slight tang of the tomato highlighted the sweetness of the tender leeks in the mélange of flavors. The slices of beef were a little tough but tasty, and this version was much less oily than Turtle Tower’s. It was slightly underseasoned and in need of a little more salt to blend the flavors, otherwise, it would have been another home run.

Our last dish was “38. Com Tom Suon Nuong, $6.95 – BBQ shrimp and pork chop over rice”, and maybe got short shrift because of it. The BBQ shrimp skewer again is just great – full of charred flavors, juicy and well-seasoned. The two pork chops splayed over the bed of rice were grilled competently, but were a little plain until the nuoc cham was used. Still a nice job, but we were slowing down by then.

For dessert we had “Fried banana and ice cream, $4.95”. We couldn’t decide which flavor of ice cream we wanted, so the obliging owner scooped all three flavors – jasmine, black sesame, and one other I can’t remember – in each serving along with four pieces of battered and fried banana. The ice creams are from Taiwan and were quite exotic. The green-tinted jasmine didn’t deliver much flavor, but the aroma at the back of the palate aspirated into every cranial cavity to fill the inside of your head with floral perfume, a most unusual sensation. The black sesame was sort of purplish-gray in color with some black dots and had the strongest flavor. All three ice creams flavors were marred by off-textures that kept them from being enjoyable - sandy, gritty, powdery. Interesting to taste though.

With Tom being a regular here, I felt we might have gotten a bit more attention than someone walking in off the street. Most of the evening we had two people (including the wife-owner) hovering over our table instructing us how to eat the dishes, keeping a close eye that we didn’t miss a special garnish, refilling glasses, and clearing plates. They seemed genuinely concerned that we love every dish. We had excellent service - I’ve never been that closely supervised in my eating before.

With a round of Thai ice teas and a beer too, the cost per person was $18 including tax and a 25% tip. We also managed a surreptitious nip of the 2001 Schloss Johannisberger Estate Riesling, full of lemon grass and floral tones that were lovely with the delicate flavors of this meal.

Many thanks to “Tom in SF” for organizing this dinner and sharing one of his favorite haunts. Comments and corrections, please!

New Loi’s Vietnamese Restaurant
890 Taraval St. (at 19th Ave.)
San Francisco
Closed Tuesday



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