Last weekend I was running an errand in San Jose and decided it would be a fine time to try and find some good south bay chow. Every time I drive through San Jose, I am amazed by the diversity of small ethnic restaurants. Many of the streets remind me of a strip mall version of the Mission so I figured there had to be some good chow there. Knowing there is a large Vietnamese population and living in a Vietnamese restaurant free town :-( I searched the web and found a brief Metro review of Quang Da on Santa Clara that sounded interesting.
Quang Da is in a stand alone building a few blocks closer to downtown than the more famous Vung Tau. The small restaurant is fairly bare bones with tile floors and taqueria quality tables and chairs- no cloth napkins here. The restaurant did appear to be very clean and the owners have decorated the walls with a significant number of paintings which do a good job of dressing up the place and make it more cheerful. Next to the paper napkin dispensers on the tables is a tray with sambal, pickled thai chilies, fish sauce and soy sauce. The menu consists of 40 selections split geographically into Hue and central Vietnam. There are also 8 additional vegetarian options and a couple of side orders. The manager? Spoke enough English to align sauces with dishes which was significantly more than our waitress. In a brilliant move for us gringos, in addition to the menu we were given a small photo album of every dish on the menu with descriptions and menu item #. This helped to answer questions about dishes and we definitely shifted our selections based upon photos of the food. Prices ranged from $2.50 for steamed Hue pork sausage (looked like it was wrapped in banana leaf to $6.50 for a pork rib plate with egg cake and shredded pork.
We started with similar dishes from the Hue and central sides of the menu:
1. Banh Beo Chen (Central)- Steamed rice cakes with minced dried shrimp and pork "Quang Da" style $3.95.
This dish was a small cup (looked like a Chinese restaurant tea cup) in which the rice cake mixture had been spread along the bottom and steamed in the cup. The dried shrimp had been ground into a powder and sprinkled on top of the cakes which were then topped with a few cubes of the pork. This was served with a bowl of fish sauce and chopped jalapenos or serranos. The cakes were soft with a light chew and the subtle sweetness of the rice flour contrasted nicely with the heat of the chilies and the pungent fish sauce. The pork seemed to add more of a textural than flavor component.
2. Banh It Kep Banh Ram (Hue)- Crispy sticky rice flour topped with sticky rice flour dumplings $4.25. This dish consisted of small (1¨) flat crispy rice flour cakes topped with round rice flour dumplings and the same fish sauce and chili mixture of dish 1. I didn't like this dish as much as I found the rice dumplings to be too chewy for my tastes. I felt like I could chew the dumpling for a few minutes and they would just not break down. The crispy rice flour base, however, added a fantastic texture. I suspect that an order of the crispy rice crackers topped with the Banh Beo Chen would have been a fantastic dish.
Our second round of food consisted of three plates:
3. Com Tam Bi Thit Nuong (Hue)- BBQ pork & shredded pork w/ steamed broken scented rice, lettuce, cucumber, papaya and carrot $5.75. I thought this was a very good version of this fairly standard dish. The pork had a good ratio of fat to meat allowing it to be tender and flavorful without offending my modern American palate. While on the sweet side, there was enough fish sauce in the marinade to give it a distinct Vietnamese character. It seemed to need another element though- perhaps some lemongrass or garlic would have added a bit more complexity. The broken rice was very fragrant and its distinct texture was more interesting than just having plain rice. From the photo of the dish I was suspecting the third element would be shredded crispy pork skin. What came on the plate looked like daikon sent through one of those Japanese cutters that create 'vegetable pasta'. It had a firm texture, a slight tanginess and a bit of heat. It did not have a particularly meaty texture or flavor but I don't have a lot of experience with the more exotic parts of the pig. (although I did recently try a pig's ear which did not have a particularly porky flavor) With this dish we received a fairly standard fish sauce/lime/sugar/sambal sauce and a small bowl of very clear chicken stock that I could not figure how to successfully integrate with the other elements on the plate.
4. Banh Xeo "Le Dinh Duong" (Central)- Rice crepe with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, peanut/sesame sauce, salad and rice paper $5.95. The crepe itself was similar in texture to that at Lotus Garden (in SF) which is a thicker version than Angkor Borei (also SF). The shrimp was left with shells which gave them a bit of texture but, like Lotus Garden, I found the bean sprout volume to be overwhelming and drown out the meat flavors/textures. While the ground meat filling at Angkor was a bit dry, I preferred that filling and found the richness of the meat to blend well the fish sauce side. Quang Da clearly won on the huge plate of lettuce, mint, cilantro, basil, sliced eggplant?, chili and a few of those mystery SE Asian herbs that taste somewhere between basil and mint. The peanut/sesame sauce was on the thin side and sweet and did not add much to the dish IMO. The rice paper wraps sounded great on paper but I found them to diminish the texture of the crepe which is one of the best parts of this dish.
5. Hu Tieu "Thanh Xuan Kho/Nuoc" Country noodle soup w/ prawn, crab claw, BBQ pork, bean sprouts, lemon and celery leaves dry/broth $5.75. (we ordered the broth version) The noodles in the soup were a bit softer than I would like but this was probably our fault as we served this after eating some of the crepe as we did not want it to loose its crispness. The broth was good with a subtle sweetness that I associate with pork and a slight ocean flavor added by a few small dried shrimp. It did not have the complexity of the soups at Vi's in Oakland but it did not grow monotonous while eating. My palate is not as sensitive to MSG as many here so I don't know if it was flavored in this manner. My only complaint is that shrimp and crab claw were literal terms and as the server I was obligated to serve these items to my dining companions. The celery leaves added an interesting flavor note. (they did not appear to be standard celery leaves so perhaps they were from an eastern version of the veg) While I usually find lemon to be a horrible replacement for limes in pho, it worked quite well in this soup and added a welcome touch of brightness.
Overall I thought it was a fairly good restaurant. While not a revelatory experience, I thought the food was generally well balanced and the generous use of fish sauce and dried shrimp gave the food fairly bold flavors and made it feel a bit more authentic than many of the Vietnamese restaurants I have previously dined at. Prices are very reasonable and service was good considering the language barrier. I will definitely stop by to sample a few other menu items in the future.
348 E. Santa Clara
San Jose, CA 95113
Metro Review: http://metroactive.com/papers/metro/1...
List of Vietnamese Restaurants I found: http://www.gocee.com/viet/restaurants...