Sandwich shop goodies #15 – Bánh quy (turtle mochi)

Vietnamese Of my two hundred fifty some posts so far, this Sandwich Shop Goodies series brings me the most joy when writing and also takes me the longest time per post. It’s a collection of the bits and pieces that cost next to nothing. You may say why of course, how can a mere grad student afford The Slanted Door, The French Laundry, or our local Chez Panisse et al. Now although my salary certainly factors in my grocery list, the truth is I’ve lost interest in the uptown food scene. It dazzles like fireworks, and also like fireworks, it doesn’t stay. The mixing and matching of the freshest and strangest ingredients has blended so many nationalities into one that it loses culture like a smoothie losing texture. Those fancinesses don’t have a home. Meanwhile, I can spend days googling an obscure street snack and still regret that I haven’t spent more time, because I know that someone somewhere out there has an interesting story surrounding its identity that I haven’t heard. With such food there’s more than what goes into the pot that I can mention. […]

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Mom’s cooking #3 – Stuffed tofu in tomato sauce

Vietnamese — Guest post by Mom, translated by me — Tofu is a familiar face in the Asian kitchens, especially the Far East ones: Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean. In Korean dramas, the Koreans have tofu for every meal and some would give a block of white dobu to people who just get out of detention, perhaps to wish them a good, new start without impurities and no returning to jail? A cute, meaningful tradition I think. Up north Vietnam, đậu phụ used to be the main source of protein, despite having “phụ” (secondary) in its name. After all, the old Mr. Lê in Nhất Linh‘s New Bridge Ville dreamed of only a tofu wedge dipped in shrimp paste to satiate a drink at dinner time. Is it white tofu or golden fried tofu, and is it good eaten like that, I wonder? Down South, soft tofu is marvelously used to make warm tofu pudding in syrup (tàu hủ nước đường), an addictive dessert that I haven’t seen in the States, and unfortunately, was slowly fading away from even the Saigon food scene as it’s harder to make than it […]

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A Green Cafe for vegan cuisine

The American Vietnamese must not like vegan very much. (And I stress “American” because plenty of places back home specialize in making vegan dishes far tastier than their meat counterparts.) Take Berkeley for example, there’s no Vietnamese vegan diners, but I can think of at least three Chinese ones (Vegi Food, Long Life Vegi House, and Renee’s Place) and a multitude of American’s (like Cafe Gratitude, Herbivore, and Saturn Cafe). Green Cafe in Milpitas is the first Vietnamese vegan restaurant you can find south of Berkeley. Its good points: there’s an online menu, everything costs under ten bucks, and they give you a free warm-up. The tofu soup has little black squares of dry seaweed and a soothing broth slightly thickened with tapioca starch. The soup isn’t magnificent, but nothing gets the appetite rolling better than a gulp of soup. Green Cafe’s fourth good point: no item on the menu has the word “Buddha” attached to its name. Here’s a pet peeve of mine: some people casually name their stuff Buddha this and that whenever their stuff […]

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Hương Giang – Savour Huế in Houston

I lost my memory card. If you’re a food blogger too you’d know how devastated I felt: the first advice to a food blogger these days is “good pictures”. Well, the pictures I took at Hương Giang are amazing, they just no longer exist. But, pictures or not, as my professor Lawrence Hall would say in his British tongue, “you can’t stop me,” or in this case, I can’t stop myself from blogging about the restaurant. Is their food that good? Hương Giang takes a shy, small square in the parking lot at the corner of Bellaire and Boone. If you drive westward on Bellaire Blvd, you’ll see its sign on the left before you reach Hong Kong Market. It’s really a tucked-away place for scoffers, the outlook unimpressive, the sign blue and white like a tired worker shirt. The inside is similar to any average pho joints you’ve seen, wiped clean and plastic cheap. I knew my mom wouldn’t come here if not for blogging’s sake, but in this city it’d be hard to get a menu more Huế than this one. There are pictures in the menu and printouts taped […]

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Sweet and spicy Zante’s Indian pizza

I can eat rice for every meal every day without getting tired of it (with perhaps an occasional craving for noodle soups or a burger). Why? Because rice is a solid starch base upon which you can mount anything and they’d go together just like that. Meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, other starchy stuff. The closest thing to rice that wheat can do is the pizza. I wouldn’t eat pizza everyday because it always makes me cry for water like a beached whale. But everything goes on pizzas, too. Even curry. Spot on, Zante. I don’t know how Mudpie knew of this cozy kitchen on Mission Street, but we went there right after I got off the plane from Puerto Vallarta. The combination of “Indian” and “pizza” sounds like comfort on a drizzling January night. Besides, I have a thing for old brick buildings, and the number 86. Though the printed menu is much easier to flip and read than the online menu, we still took a while looking for something new and appealing from the maze of flat breads and meaty dishes (and vegetarian […]

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Mom’s cooking #2: Sizzling the Vietnamese steak (bò bíp-tết)

— Guest post by Mom, translated by me — My little family has three people, and two of them like beef. Ever since we settled in Texas, the land of cheap, good beef, my husband and daughter almost always order something cow related when we go out, even as they love these loving-eyed animals when they’re alive and grazing the fields too. Sometimes I join them in forking red meat, and of those few occasions the American steak does not quite sing to me, but rather they sink a little hard and a bit salty. I guess the blame lies with either the meat quality or the cooking method, and mostly the latter. So I buy some steak fillet and try out the way we used to make back in Saigon. I slice ’em thin, marinade and fry, and not trying to toot my own horn here, but my steak is better than them restos’ steaks. 😛 Even Mai’s dad agrees. Its first highlight is the tenderness: it’s so tender I can bite it off with my teeth, who needs the knife and elbow grease to butcher that poor fillet. Its second highlight is the mouthwatering […]

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Candied cà-na (white canarium or Chinese olive)

It’s not the black stuff they throw on your pizzas or the green thing they toothpick on your sandwich. How many of us city kids have tasted the tartness with a tiny sweet afterpunch of this Mekong delta fruit? It’s addictive like fresh squeezed orange juice on a summer day. Speaking street tongue, it’s nature’s crack in oblong shape. Eat ’em fresh with chilipepper salt, or candy them with sugar and heat, it’s how kids down South do it with the cà na they shake off from bushes on the riverbanks. And argue if you may, kids know tasty food. The shape is really the only link cà na has with the Western olive (Olea europaea), though it’s at least two times bigger. Does the name “cà na” mean anything? “Cà” is tomato, and “na” is the northern word for sweetsop, two totally unrelated species to this ovoid fruit. So “cà na” is not a compound noun. I’m no etymologist but here’s my best guess: “cà na” |kah nah| is a shortened vietnamization of the Thai word “kanachai”, from which cultigen taxonomists derive the the scientific name “canarium”, a genus with about […]

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A spot for beef stew (bò kho)

When Phở Hòa on Shattuck closed down, a part of me collapsed. No more bò kho? Granted that I can only have a bite or two in one sitting, or Mom would be worried about bò kho giving me a fever, it’s still comforting to know that a bowl of this supertender beef stew is only a few minutes walk away, or simply that it exists at a restaurant. Many a times I have seen Vietnamese restos, especially those in Houston, advertise bò kho on their menu but claim that they’re out of it when you order. So I felt in quite a shock fearing that bò kho has left me alone for good. Then Mudpie, also a bò kho fan, found Phở Hà. We went and asked to make sure they have it. It’s no Berkeley, Phở Hà is in San Jose, but we’ll take what we can get. Their plastic bowls and utensils aren’t all that splendid. Their miến gà (cellophane noodle soup with chicken) is decent but their phở áp chảo (pan-fried rice noodle) is too overfilled with thick brown sauce to sing. Continue reading A spot for beef stew (bò kho)

Sandwich shop goodies 14 – Bánh da lợn (pig skin pie)

This is no stranger in the Vietnamese food biz: the layered pastry that gets its name from looking like pork belly, except green and yellow. Of course it doesn’t contain any pork skin, it’s sweet, sometimes may even be too sweet. Dad used to buy a whole pie home, as big as a platter and as warm as a father’s hand. From that same bakery somewhere in the market alley, he would buy bánh chuối nướng (bread pudding) too, which I always preferred to the bánh da lợn. But thinking back on those days when we lived near Bà Chiểu Market, it was certainly the best pig skin pie I ever ate. Many years have passed, and many bánh da lợn have been eaten by me, both in its homeland and across the seas. The best way, I figured, to slaughter these chewy beasts is to peel off the layers one by one, when it’s warm. That wet, smooth skin of tapioca flour, when warm, is fragile. You don’t want to break it while peeling, and you want to drop it whole in your mouth to wrestle with its resilience, all […]

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Mom’s Cooking #1: Candied orange peel with pulp

Vietnamese *Guest post in Vietnamese by my Mom, translated by me* My daughter and her friends always like my fresh squeezed orange juice, so every time she visits home in the summer and winter break, we drive up to the Farm Patch Produce Market in College Station to buy navel oranges. The grocery stores have navel oranges too, of course, but for some reason Farm Patch always have the best. Their rotund shape, their bright color, their rugged skin similar to that of the Vietnamese cam sành, all promise a slender sweetness contained, not to mention the little twin at the apex, darling like a hidden Christmas gift. These oranges are so well worth the two hour drive that I regret throwing them away after juicing, so I thought, why not make “mứt cam“, candied orange peel? The simple ingredients: – 2 oranges – 10 tbs sugar or to taste – 1 cup water The simple method: – Wash and squeeze out juice from the oranges, then slice the peel (with pulp attached) into strips. – Mix 10 tbs sugar with water and simmer […]

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