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South Bay Viet Chowdown report (long)

Alice Ringer | Dec 8, 200304:12 PM

On Saturday 12/6, six of us met in San Jose for an adventure in Vietnamese "street food" cuisine. Hao was our expert and yours truly was the co-organizer. I was just 5 minutes late but was the last arrival (yes, I should’ve known). This report summarizes the things we ate & reviewed. I hope others will chime in, and also report the findings after I had to depart unexpectedly early.

We started at Bun Bo Hue #1 on Senter Road, a small café with about 15 tables. Hao selected this destination for us because it specializes in Central Vietnamese food, and because it is the only one, or one of few places, that serves various “banh” (appetizers or small cakes, like dim sum) made from scratch and steamed to order.

The first dish, Banh Beo, are disks of steamed rice flour, topped with fluffly ground shrimp and green onion, served with nuoc cham (fish sauce, water, sugar, hot pepper, and lemon/lime/vinegar) to be poured over the banh beo. Tiny cubes of very crunchy chicharones accompany this dish here. At BBH#1, banh beo is served individually in something like a large dipping bowl, 4 bowls per order (other places usually plate several silver-dollar sized disks onto one plate). Hao and I (the 2 native borns) thought the rice flour was just right, but the nuoc cham too weak. I noticed the lack of heat in the nuoc cham (it had sliced jalapenos instead of minced thai bird chiles), and the lack of yellow mung bean powder on the banh beo (maybe I grew up on a different style of banh beo). The others really liked this dish. Overall grade: A-

The second dish, Banh Ram It, is a two-parter: on top is a small ball of very sticky rice flour filled with small cubes of pork meat, and below is a fried shrimp fritter. You eat a bit of both in the same bite. We all loved the contrast in textures (snappy crunch and chewy sticky goodness). Overall grade: A

Next was a noodle dish, Mi Quang. This dish has yellow rice noodles (yellow is from turmeric when the noodles are boiled), topped with a mind-boggling assortment of stuff: shrimp, sliced pork, Vietnamese pork “bologna”, shrimp, thin sliced onion, thin shredded red & green cabbage, bean sprouts, chopped mint, peanuts & fried shallots, with a dark (chicken?) broth that is just enough to make the dish wet but not swimming in broth. Normally served with puffed shrimp crackers but here it was served with puffed black sesame seed rice cracker. This was Catherine G’s favorite (or maybe her fave so far). I thought it was good but did not have strong enough shrimp flavor and could use more herbs. I’m still searching for Mi Quang to beat the place a grand uncle once took me, some place near 101 & Tully that I can’t remember. Hao said her mom’s specialty dish is Mi Quang so wherever she orders it, it’s tough to beat her mom’s. Overall grade: B+

After a bit of wondering if they had forgotten the rest of our order, Hao confirmed with the kitchen & wait staff that it was still coming (thank goodness we had a native born speaker with us).

Next was Banh Bot Loc, small cakes of tapioca flour which are glutinous and see through when steamed, with one slice of pork and one boiled shrimp inside. This one got mixed reviews: Hao and I thought the chewy but resilient texture of the tapioca flour was just right (helped by the fact that it was freshly steamed) but the filling too bland. Normally you don’t need any fish sauce or nuoc cham for these but at BBH#1 they needed something. Hao gave it a C, I gave it a B, others liked it. They get extra points for being the only place I know that steams it to order.

Last was Banh Nam, steamed flat rectangular packets of banana leaf, inside is a rice flour base with ground shrimp and ground pork pressed into the base. You eat this with nuoc cham poured over. Again, it got mixed reviews. Hao gave it a C, Han gave it an A. With the too-weak nuoc cham being a key part of this dish, I gave it a B. But it gets extra points for having a high shrimp to rice flour ratio.

The total including tax & tip was a mere $6.25 per person (no drinks, only tea).

For our next destination, we drove a few miles to Pho Ga An Nam, a small café on Story Road btw Senter and McLaughlin whose specialty is Pho Ga (chicken pho) and free-range chicken. It was packed with Vietnamese lunch-goers. The place has an almost kitschy décor: a bamboo roof with some fake chickens over the counter, bamboo “saloon doors” to the restrooms, and a wallpaper border of roosters on the white walls. We split the following dishes:

#7 Pho Ga Dac Biet – or house specialty pho ga, it comes with chicken thigh chopped across the leg bone, chicken gizzard, and (Derek are you listening?) unborn young eggs. We noticed the sweetness of the broth (like sweet from meat flavor, not sweet from sugar). I thought the broth was fragrant (warning: adding too much sriracha & lime like I did really detracts from the flavor). I like that at Pho An Nam, you can choose which cuts of chicken to go in your pho (other pho places usually have only 1 kind of pho ga). I forgot to ask the group for an overall grade, but others seemed to like it. My grade: A-

#30 Mien Ga Thit – cellophane noodles with shredded chicken (breast meat), and chicken liver. This dish is traditionally tasting strong of black pepper, and we really noticed that here. The broth did not seem the same as the pho (not as sweet). I thought it was good but not memorable. My grade: B+

#11 Com Ga – Boiled chicken and rice cooked in chicken broth; served with a dipping sauce of nuoc cham and minced ginger, and pickled cabbage that looks like kim chi. I really liked the ginger nuoc cham, but thought the pickled cabbage was too sweet. I really enjoyed the taste and tenderness of the chicken meat. Hao said it was boiled but in other places the boiled chicken is usually tasteless to me. I also thought the rice was perfectly cooked (grains are separate but slightly chewy, and tasting of chicken). My grade: A-

Total at Pho Ga An Nam including 2 (or was it 1?) iced coffees was a paltry $5.50 per person. The group moved on to another destination for sweet drinks/dessert after I had to leave.

Overall I really liked being able to order vietnamese banh dishes made and steamed to order at BBH#1, but was disappointed that a place that caters to native vietnamese would have weak nuoc cham. And I will definitely go back to Pho Ga An Nam. I really enjoyed my first Chowdown event and loved meeting everyone and sharing opinions on food. I want to thank Hao for being the technical expert and designated Vietnamese speaker for our group, and for all the others for coming.

Oh, and I took digital pictures, but I don’t have a place to host them to allow posting the pics here. Maybe I will upload them to Yahoo Photos and put a link to my Yahoo Photo Album here.

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