Bánh cuốn Hoa – The rule of the steamed rolls

Like with most Asian eating establishments, it’s virtually impossible to answer the question “what is the best Vietnamese restaurant in [name of city]?” Let me stay there for about half a year, and I can tell you where to get the best pho, the best cha gio, the best bun thit nuong, the best banh mi, but not the best Vietnamese. Assuming you would agree that I can’t compare a place that specializes in noodle to another that specializes in beef, I would admit: I don’t know what you mean by “the best Vietnamese”. Do you mean everything on the menu is the best of its kind? Everything is good? Everything is cheap and good? Everything is cheap and good and the service is the best? Everything is cheap and good, the service is good, and the ambiance is the best? You see, there are more variables in your generic question than I could possibly control with my subjectivity. And that is not to consider the possibility of you asking that question just because I’m Vietnamese, which doesn’t bother me at all, but I’m usually not sure of how much detail you’d like to receive. (I’ve […]

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The highs and lows of Plum

There seems to be a new trend in the East Bay restaurant business: it has to be hidden and/or without a sign. First it was embarrassing walking up and down the street to find Commis, and now the same thing happens with Plum. Is this some kind of scavenger hunt joke? Plum‘s menu is short and sweet like its name. However, the same thing can’t be said about the majority of its dishes, which either tip a bit over to the salty side (pate ciccioli and bacon) or stay way back in plaindom (crispy pig ears and trout). There are bright notes, too. The turnip soup with yuzu kosho, pear and cilantro is a light, heart-warming start. The short ribs with peanuts and sweet potato has a deep Asian flavor. The caramelized brioche with coffee ice cream makes a comforting finish. Ironically, the yummy dishes didn’t have good pictures. But here’s a small album to get a taste of Plum.

Lychee and mung bean che (Chè đậu xanh trái vải)

This dessert requires no skill in the making, but it ranks way up in the chè hierarchy, topping taro che and my own banana tapioca pudding. Beside the fact that Little Mom invented it, I always like things with lychee. 😉 Because everyone’s sweet tooth differs, it doesn’t make sense to have a fixed recipe for this simple dessert. One package of halved mung bean (with the green skin on), 1 can of whole lychee, 1 can of coconut milk, raisins, sugar and water are all there is to the pot. The mung bean need to be soaked in water overnight to soften and cook faster. The coconut milk and the syrup from the lychee can are mixed with water to cook the bean. More or less water depends on how thick you like your chè; the more liquidy chè served cold, which I prefer, is suitable as a palate cleanser after a big meal, and the thicker version is best as a midday snack. When the mixture boils and the bean becomes soft enough to dissolve in your mouth, add raisins and sugar to taste. Wait […]

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Central Vietnamese rice cracker roll (bánh đa cuốn thịt)

It’s the 29th of the 12th month in the lunar calendar. The last day of the Year of the Cat. The last day before Tet officially starts. But the preparation for Tet is also Tet. Having a good time is also Tet. Being home is also Tet. 🙂 One of the best parts of being home is not just getting to eat a lot. It’s getting to eat a lot of food that I would never have known otherwise. This time, Little Mom introduced me to the Central Vietnamese fun of a rice cracker roll. When I first heard the name, I thought I heard it wrong: how can you make a roll out of a stiff, crunchy, airy rice cracker (which we call a bánh tráng nướng in the South, or bánh đa in the North)? Simple. You dip it into water. Just like you would with the normal dry rice papers to make gỏi cuốn or chả giò. Except in this case, you get an extra thick roll with some crunch and air in the bite, and the nuttiness of thousands of sesame seeds ingrained in every bánh đa. The filling […]

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My twelve best meals in the Year of the Cat

Appetizers from Saigon Buffet Today marks the 28th day of the 12th month of the Year of the Cat, and it’s not the Year of the Rabbit because I’m Vietnamese. This year started with a piping jeongol at Casserole House and will be ended with a cup of Tieguanyin in bed. This year my luck has brought me new friendships with some admirable people and bolstered old friendships that have last almost a decade. I’ve eaten more, and I’ve disliked more. But there are meals that I truly like. In this list of no particular order, the setting and the price are secondary to the taste, and not all of the dishes are breathtaking (but they’re good). These meals are the best because each of them either has something that I remember (most often the dessert :D) or was shared with someone that I like. 🙂 It would be unfair to include Little Mom’s meals in this list, they’d take up the whole list. 🙂 Continue reading My twelve best meals in the Year of the Cat

Rustic Italian in the old tavern

The 7-year-old Antica Osteria is much too young to be one of “the nurseries of our legislators”, but it sure feels like one: warm brick walls, dark wood work, an old house nested in the green, sleepy residential area northwest of Rice University, and a patronage mainly composed of old white men. The smell of books might have been replaced by the smell of pasta and cheese (this place was previously a bookstore), but Chef Velio Deplano and his partner Ray Memari have kept Antica Osteria in that hidden, rustic, peaceful feeling of a bookstore. The gentle orange light made me excited like a drifting sailor seeing a lighthouse. Normal bread and butter, not bread, vinegar and oil, accompanied our post-ordering conversation, followed by some airy garlic bread. A tiny voice in some little corner in my mind whispered that the garlic bread was waiting for the salad to travel down the pipe, but who could resist such beautiful orange color. We made sure that the garlic bread’s presence on the table was as fleeting as its texture. 😉 The insalata campagnola was great by itself anyway. […]

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French and Texan intertwined at Phillippe of Houston

Every year just after the winter holiday hustle and bustle, Mom and Dad let me choose a restaurant for my early birthday dinner. Last year it was Martin’s Place for barbecue. Dad never tells me no, but let’s just say that Mom didn’t feel too confident of my aesthetics since then. This year she gently insists on French. But I manage to sneak in a twist of Texas. 😉 After all, Chef Philippe Schmit dubbed himself the French Cowboy. His two-story Philippe Restaurant & Lounge opened last February just a mile north of The Galleria. Looking out to the Houston’s limitless horizon, the second-floor dining room is bathed in a warm chocolate hue of the furniture, accented with soft vanilla light and word decorations made of Chef Schmit’s quotes in watermelon red. In contrast, the menu is bold, extensive, spanning from Texas BBQ and cactus to foie gras and fish pâté, from the classic croque monsieur to the carefree duck confit tamales; there’s a little something for everyone. “The Moroccan”, beef tartare with raisin, almond and the Tunisian hot sauce Continue reading French and Texan intertwined at Phillippe of Houston

Tricitronnade – Three-in-one Lemonade

The triple punch from Little Mom: orange, lemon, and salted lime. Like instant ramen and popsicles, it all started from the leftovers: half a glass of a-little-too-salty salted lime drink, half a too-sour-to-eat orange, another half glass of normal lemonade (although Little Mom’s lemonade is not quite like any other lemonade, in a good way), and an ounce of reasoning. There was no sense in keeping them separately. The combined power shines a sweet yellow of tourmaline, smells like an orchard near the harvesting season, and tastes good enough to get me all poetically cheesy. Below is Little Mom’s recipe for the salted lime. As for the recipe of this “tricitronnade”, I would imagine that the orange doesn’t have to be sour. 😉 Continue reading Tricitronnade – Three-in-one Lemonade