Ruth Lafler | Oct 8, 200306:21 PM     18

A small group of hounds spent a Saturday exploring Vietnamese cuisine in the South Bay. Sorry if this post is lacking in details, but I was in a daze of picnic planning!

Our first stop was Minh's in Milpitas (1422 Dempsey Road, Milpitas 408-956-1000) for an early lunch. I'm not sure how the ordering was done, since I got there a little late (I had stopped to get info and post on the noodlefest next door on the way out), but Han Lukito, who organized the outing, had been there before and made some suggestions.

We had seven dishes:

Banh Tom Co Ngu (shrimp cake) -- this was shredded yam and whole shrimp tossed in some kind of batter and fried. The table gave this dish a B.

Bun Cha Cong Xuon (Shishkebob pork northern style) -- I was expecting the pork to be on a skewer, but it was in a bowl and heavily sauced. Even though it was not what I expected I thought it was tasty -- the table gave it a B+.

Bun Oc (escargo soup) -- I feel about snails the way arachnophobes feel about spiders, so I couldn't bring myself to touch this. The soup had bits of snail (or perhaps periwinkle) in a rich-looking broth with vermicelli. The table didn't think much of it and gave it a C.

We also recieved another escargot dish we didn't order: stuffed escargo "Vietnamese style" -- force meat stuffed into large snail shells. Again, I didn't touch them, so someone else will have to comment.

Com Tay Cam (chicken rice claypot) -- I liked this a lot, the rice was moist and richly flavorful, and I thought it made a good counterpoint to the other dishes. Yimster and tanspace thought the chicken was dry.

Nem Nuong (grilled pork meatballs served with rice paper crepes) -- this was the table favorite: it looked more like sliced fine-grained sausage, but it had a good grilled flavor and it was fun to wrap it up in the rice crepes with some of the herbs and sauces. The thinner-than-paper rice crepes were hard to handle and quickly dried around the edges, though. The pickled shallots hiding in the pile of greens on the plate were also tasty. Grade: A-

Banh Hoi Tom Bo Nuong (grilled shrimp and beef with thin noodles) -- I don't remember anything about this dish except that I liked the thinner noodles that came with it. Grade: B

Muc Rang Muoi (salted stir fried calamari) -- I thought these were only okay, they weren't as tender as some other versions I've had recently and they were overly salty. Other people liked it better than I did. Grade: B

I should mention that all these dishes came with big piles of greens and herbs, with individual sauces, and sometimes with noodles. Overall, I don't think any of us were impressed -- it was decent, but the dishes lacked the refined preparation and vibrant complexity of flavor of, for example, the dishes we had at Pho Tam a few months ago.

We forged on to explore the Grand Century Mall at the intersection of McLauglin and Story Road in southeast San Jose. This enclosed mall is part of a larger stripmall complex at this intersection. The mall itself houses several restaurants, a food court, a bakery, a sweet shop, a kitchenwares store, and many clothing and jewelry businesses. We wanted something sweet, so we stopped in the food court and got some sugar cane drinks in various flavors (kumquat, strawberry and ... something that was based on coconut milk with small tapioca pearls and chunks of exotic fruits). The strawberry and coconut were the favorites. We also sampled some of the preserved fruits -- green tea plums, etc. -- at the sweet shop across the away. Then we took a lap around the mall trying to work up a smidgen of appetite before we tackled our next chow objective: cha ca at the restaurant at the junction of the crossways corridor and the food court.

Cha ca is pieces of filleted catfish sauteed with turmeric and other spices and served with copious amounts of fresh dill and scallion greens and accompanied with rice vermicelli and a thick, grey fermented fish sauce. This version differed from the one that Melanie and I had recently at Turtle Tower in that the herbs were not sauteed with the fish. Instead the sauteed fish was placed on top of the raw herbs, and the whole dish was served over a gas burner, so that as we consumed it the greens wilted and eventually the ones on the bottom browned and carmelized a little. The portion was three or four times the size of the one at Turtle Tower -- six of us (although with depleted appetites) couldn't finish it. I thought the fish was better -- bigger, moister pieces -- than at Turtle Tower, but I liked the way the herbs and the fish were cooked together so the flavors melded in the Turtle Tower version. Perhaps if we had let the dish sit on the burner for a while it would have been the best of both.

Next time we'll go straight for a progressive dinner at the Grand Century mall.

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