A homage to Pickett House


How far would you go out of your way for a meal? A fairly casual common meal? One that you can whip out at home in less than two hours? How long of a drive would be worth the stead of cooking? How scenic is the route? Sometimes it’s not so much the food that draws one back to a restaurant, given that the food is lovely of course. Sometimes it’s that craving for a bit of simple nature and not artifice, a bit of old fashion and not modernity, just a bit of the familiar unknown. The longer my family lives in the city, the more often we get those cravings. Almost every year now we would make a two-hour drive to the Heritage Village in Woodville for a bowl of chicken and dumpling. And it’s best on a cloudy day of January, when the young pine trees along Highway 190 are at their greenest and fuzziest. We never learned the name of this restaurant. We know where it is, we call it “the chicken and dumpling place”, and that’s enough. But it’s not just chicken and dumpling. It’s an all-you-can-eat country style with fried chicken, […]

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Bánh dầy giò – sticky rice bun with sausage

banh day 3

It’s just a white bun made from sticky rice, loosely wrapped in banana leaf so that it doesn’t attach indefinitely to your fingers, ready to sandwich a thick cut of cha lua. The purpose of the bun is purely a textural enjoyment, it has neither taste nor smell. All flavors come from the sausage. Eating the bun alone would be like chewing an incredibly huge piece of gum, the only difference is you can swallow the bun. Come to think of it, we can make a bunch of bite size sticky rice “gum” for American school kids, they can chew until they’re bored, and swallow it, no unfortunate mess under the desks and your shoes. Cool, innit? Because of either its simplicity or its antiqueness, the bánh dầy is not quite a favorable snack among the young Vietnamese these days. Or perhaps because it is a treat from the North? Southerners have a sweet tooth and are attracted to fatty, rich, flavor-compact concoctions. Bánh dầy is none of that. When I was in Saigon I knew of bánh dầy through three sources: the extremely common tale of bánh chưng bánh dầy, the book “Hanoi 36 streets” by […]

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Spice it up at OB Chicken Town

There are two things that I secretly wished for when I went to this Korean fried chicken joint in North Oakland: a better camera to take picture in the dark and a better tolerance for chili powder. [UPDATE: better camera obtained] I mean, just look at the jumping chickie on their menu, isn’t he all fired up? Late February, at 7pm. The moment we stepped in from the cold damp parking lot outback, I fell enamored with the ambiance. Dim light, warm air, seats divided up into small sections with straw thatched roofs overhead and modest curtains to ensure privacy and a sense of lonesomeness amidst the crowd. The fire post watched over quiet customers, most of whom are Korean. I’m saying this because it feels oddly heartwarming to listen to conversations that I don’t understand, and if you’re like me, then OB Town is the place to go when you’re in the mood for nostalgia. And fried chicken too, of course. A plate of garlic and soy sauce fried chicken (gan jang chicken) is more than enough for one, maybe two if neither is too hungry. The sweetness was […]

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Giò Chả Đức Hương – sausage and so much more


Given how often my family comes here, I feel obliged to give this store a proper post. About every other week or so, my parents make the hour-long drive to get a loaf or two of cha lua (silk sausage) and maybe a few Vietnamese between-a-snack-and-a-meal goodies. The affable owner lady knows our usual grabs, and we know her trustworthy provision. Whether it’s wrapped in banana leaves, aluminum foil, or cling wrap, Giò Chả Đức Hương has the best of its kind in Bellaire. The shelves of nem (fermented pounded pork sausage), bánh tét (sticky rice log), and bánh ít (sticky rice pyramid). These small bánh tét are sold all year round, they are only about 4 inches long, usually with vegan filling (mung bean paste or banana). They make an appropriate snack for a teenager, but usually a little too much for me. Unwrapped below, left-right-down: bánh giòbánh ít – bánh tét: Continue reading Giò Chả Đức Hương – sausage and so much more

Down the Aisles 1: The fun of bánh men (yeast cookie)


Despite the name, banh men are quite girly cookies. Just look at how colorful they are: pink for strawberry, yellow for durian, white for plain coconut, green for pandan leaf. The literal translation “yeast cookie” is also a misnomer because there is no yeast, just tapioca flour, sugar, coconut milk and water. Somewhere between your teeth and your tongue they would transform from crunchy to melting, all of a sudden that crisp cookie disappears, a sweet lingering gently passes by. And that’s it, you wouldn’t even know that you’ve just had a cookie. My mother’s girl friends at work love these. The cute bites come in all shapes: worm, button (like the ones made by tt at PlayingWithMyFood, and spiky caterpillar (banh men gai, the ones I got). Ch3rry Blossoms made flowers of them. Extremely light and mild, they are a convenient snack, my fingers just have a go at the bowl next to my laptop without me even noticing. The label on the box says: “Serving size: 150g, Serving per container: 1”. There are about 150 cookies in there, so I can be proud that at least I didn’t follow the label. A container […]

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Banh Cuon Hoa II in Bellaire

If I had to pick one Vietnamese dish made from rice flour and eat it everyday for the rest of my life (whole grain white rice doesn’t count), then bánh cuốn would be it. These rolls of thin rice sheet, filled with minced pork and woodear mushroom, gently dipped in nước mắm, make the perfect warm breakfast, light lunch, and quirky dinner. The question is where to find them. Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ tops the chart everywhere from Texas to Cali, but does Bánh Cuốn Hoa II come close? Maybe rival? Miss by a long shot? I cheated a bit at the beginning. The first picture isn’t bánh cuốn, but bánh bèo, a rice flour spinoff drafted in the shape and size of waterferns, hence its name. Flooded with nước mắm, they make great appetizers while we were waiting for bánh cuốn. Bánh bèo comes with a few toppings: fried shallot, chopped green onions, and tôm chấy (dry fried shrimp). The tôm chấy I usually have are totally desiccant, ranging anywhere between flaky and powdery, but these (I’m guessing homemade) shrimps are still plump, and more sweet than […]

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Banh tet, sweet and savory


Bánh chưng and bánh tét to the Vietnamese Tết are like turkey and ham to the American Thanksgiving. The holiday feast just wouldn’t feel right without them. Although I have blogged about these sticky rice squares and logs before, the lunar new year has come back, and so are they. Sticky rice can be uberfilling in large quantity, and like all festive food, it’s not recommended that you feast on these dense beasts day after day, as satisfaction would turn into tiresomeness. But once a year, or maybe twice, a couple slices of banh tet sound so much more interesting than cereal, rice, even noodle soup. Banh chung and banh tet have rather similar ingredients, especially when they’re made by Vietnamese Southerners. Both are wrapped in leaves (although slightly different kinds of leaves), and boiled for hours in water that is sometimes spiced with lemongrass. After cooking, a heavy weight is put on banh chung to drain the water, while banh tet are rolled around to perfect the cylindrical shape. I remember we used to hang pairs of banh tet in my grandfather’s kitchen, taking one down everyday during the week of Tet to whip out a nice […]

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Starting the Tiger year with Herbivore


Being a blatant ruthless carnivore all year round, I know that going vegan one day of the year won’t help me redeem myself in hell, but I still follow my mom’s tradition on the first day of Tet. No cheese, no animal milk, no bone marrow, no lard, no skin, no fishy business. It’s the first day of the new spring, everybody deserves to live, so we believe it’s nice to spare the lives of yummy things that can move. Or at least we should try not to cause their deaths. That means I have to find a vegan restaurant in Berkeley. Mudpie was estatic. (Mudpie has been fighting to go to Herbivore down the block for months, and I’ve been “gently” suggesting other places all this time.) Mudpie went online and picked his order even before we got there: the Indonesian noodle salad with tamarind dressing (pictured above). When we got there the place was packed to the roof. Lucky for us, we got the last free table, and some folks who came later had to wait for at least an hour to be seated. If you wonder how I knew how long the wait was, it’s […]

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Roasted quail at Thảo Tiên


It must have been at least 4 months since we last went to Thao Tien, and I’ve been telling myself to blog about this place ever since, but for some reason every record of our visit had mysteriously disappeared. Did I not take picture? What happened to the receipt? I have no idea. But the amazing taste of roasted quails haunts me in my sleep. We just had to go back to take pictures again, and it’s only appropriate to complete this last hour of the Ox year with the best of birdies. Thao Tien actually specializes in hủ tíu, a noodle soup with slightly sweet broth, chewy noodle, fried shallot, usually accompanied by pork and shrimp (I blogged about it before at Bún Bò Huế Cố Đô). With the southern Vietnamese theme, the house not only has their waiters dress in áo bà ba but also extends its menu to include the less commonly seen savories like chim cút rô-ti (roasted quail) and cá kèo kho tiêu (a kind of freshwater fish – the “elongate mudskipper“, if you absolutely must know – simmered in fish sauce and caramel sauce much like cá […]

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Pre-Tet shopping in San Jose

Tet in San Jose1

The lunar new year comes a bit late this time. The first day of Tet coincides with Valentine’s Day on a Sunday. Can you imagine how big it is for the Asian expats? The other years Tet happened during the week, people have to work, kids have classes, maybe even tests. Who knows what a pop quiz on that first day can do to a child that whole year? Tet in Vietnam is in the spring, but for the expats in the western hemisphere, if Tet comes a bit too early, like in January, then it’d still be coat-and-cold-nose time. So yeah, it’s big this year. In the past few days it’s been snowing in Texas and everything, but the weather here has gotten fairly springlike. The hills are all fuzzily green, purplish pink flowers blooming on the side streets (I know nothing about botany, but my guess is they are related to cherry blossoms somehow), spring showers come every now and then just to wet your eyebrows. The employment rate may still be low in Cali, but there was no sign of a recession in San Jose last weekend. The parking lots at Lion […]

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