Ten chowers met at Binh Minh Quan for the latest Oakland Chinatown Lunch Festival -- Vietnamese this time (#6 in the series), Thursday July 29.
In attendance, especially welcome, were two Chowteens. Also Alice from San Jose, who is Vietnamese (she claimed to be "not an expert" but was chatting away with the waitstaff in Vietnamese, and judging every dish on the table -- seems like an expert to me).
This is a hole-in-the-wall place. Yet the menu lists 110 items, plus 13 Lunch Specials. It seems that about one in every five items on the menu is listed as "our specialty."
We had these dishes:
#17 Tamarind beef ($8.95) (interesting compared to the Tamarind pseudo-beef at Golden Lotus -- some of us preferred the psuedo beef for its texture, but I thought the seasoning here was better.) Excellent dish.
#21, Lotus Root Shrimp and Pork Salad ($7.95). Very crunchy, light, delicious. The lotus roots are "baby" ones, not the lacy cross-sections of the mature root.
#12, Jicama roll ($4.50), two orders. Nice sauce to accompany it. These were pre-wrapped. A bit mild for my taste.
Then we started to work. Compared with other cuisines, some Vietnamese dishes require much assembly. Alice led us through the routine. A rice-paper pancake starts the process. At Binh Minh Quan, these are presented in a plastic dispenser, one in each leaf of the dispenser, which keeps them separate, warm, moist, and pliable. Then a leaf of lettuce on top. Next layer is mint, then "Vietnamese coriander" (sort of halfway between coriander and basil). Then the object of attention (squid, beef, etc) is placed on top, perhaps some pickled vegetable or bean sprout too. You wrap this up (the rice paper is surprisingly sturdy) and dip it in a sauce. The same tamarind sauce came with some of the dishes; Alice pronounced it authentic because it included pink shrimp paste. It had garlic, I think, and was a bit spicy. The whole wrapping business is more work than I needed, so I wound up eating the elements individually. A lettuce leaf dipped in the sauce was delicious.
So, on to the "wrap" party:
#89, Stuffed Squid ($8.95). Small squid bodies stuffed with a ground pork mixture. This was more about the stuffing than the squid, though it was tasty.
They offer "seven courses of beef," and we had just one of them: #72, Beef in Aromatic Lot Leaf ($6.95). Eight sausage-like items, each of ground beef wrapped in "Lot" leaf, then fried. Accompanied by crushed peanuts, with the lettuce, mint, "Vietnamese coriander", rice paper wrapping. Alice said "as good as my mother's." Excellent flavor -- best version of this that I've had.
They have many catfish dishes. We ordered #95, a "whole roasted catfish with crispy skin". It costs $33! It was a huge catfish, butterflied in some way, and broiled (?) with a very crispy skin, but succulent meat -- Yimster expertly deboned it, and noted that some of the flesh stuck to the backbone, a sign that it had been cooked to the "just done" stage -- hard to do with a big fish. More wrapping and dunking ensued. Extremely tasty.
We skipped the three frog dishes ("tastes like chicken"). However we had #99, Grilled Deer ($16.95). A cooker was brought to the table, three huge pats of butter sizzling away, and we grilled a large platter of sliced, marinated deer meat (must be cooked beyond rare, according to the genial waitress). Then we wrapped and dunked. Very tasty.
As a final dish we shared two orders of pho, a true test of any Vietnamese place. I was pretty stuffed by then, but at least I didn't have to wrap anything. It was tasty enough. The broth was a bit sweet, judged by others to be excellent. The meat was very good.
Orange slices for dessert. Alice brought some tasty vietnamese candies -- one Cherimoya, another Kumquat (or mandarin -- we had a big discussion about it). And the surprise -- the bill was only $116. We left $14 apiece, making this the most expensive in the Oakland lunch series, but the special dishes were worth it -- and so was the presence of Alice and the Chowteens.
One mystery -- there weren't too many other diners in the place. Maybe the dishes are expensive? But there are a lot of "lunch specials" on the menu. The two staffers wer very congenial and efficient.
We'll do another Vietnamese lunch on Tuesday August 3, and Cambodian on Thursday August 12. If you've already received an Evite to other Oakland lunches, then you'll get one for the upcoming ones as soon as I get my act together. To add yourself to my Evite list, send me an email at the address above: jtchowhoundAThotmailDOTcom
Binh Minh Quan
338 12th Street (near Webster, but not on the corner)