The literal translation is “highland”, but for most Vietnamese the word Cao Nguyên brings to mind images of eye-soothing green terraces, people of ethnic minorities in colorful traditional dresses and hoop and ring jewelries, dancing around the fire, drinking rice wine with a meter-long straw out of a communal urn, and simple but sturdy stilt houses above ground. In San Jose, Cao Nguyên restaurant has the decor up to theme with an urn and straws in the corner, and a painting of a highlander couple dressed in their most comfortable attire, a wrap from the waist down, by the fire. (This blog is rated G so I’m not gonna upload a picture of the painting.)
The menu, though, isn’t particularly highlandish. At first glance it is similar to most other Vietnamese restaurants, and diners here also order the similar things they always order: hot pots and noodle soups. But if we’re to say that Lemon Grass has more single-portion dishes (the way we always do at American restaurants) and Thảo Tiên‘s focus is Mekong Delta noodle soups, then Cao Nguyên is the place to go for family meals. Most dishes are for sharing among 4-6 people, and to eat with rice.
So share we did. It’s really quite cheap this way. An order of sườn nướng sả (lemongrass grilled pork chop) costs a slim $8.25, and is indeed enough for four even as the chops too are slim like Wasa knäckebröd. It’s not fatty, perhaps a tad dry, and there was no scent of lemongrass, but grilled pork is grilled pork, it’s just never bad.
An order of cá chim chiên comes with nước mắm gừng in a wholesome bowl and some pickled vegetables for colors. The menu reads “pan fried Chinese pompano“, but not only the ca chim I know is pomfret, I’ve never seen ca chim split in half and flattened out on the plate like this, as it is already wide and flat by nature. What we had might not be ca chim after all. However, its extra crispy skin dipped in nước mắm gừng is more than enough to let the zoological tidbit slide. I even got to nibble the eyes. It was $8.95 well spent.
Just a few dimes down are the single-portion rice plates, such as this broken rice for $7.50. There’s that grilled pork chop again, sided by a heap of shredded pork skin (bì), whose chewy and grainy texture contrasts the spongy softness of ground pork and chopped cellophane vermicelli in a slice of golden yellow egg casserole (chả trứng). Somehow this combination is standard for broken rice, with sweet and savory nước chấm enhancing every grain.
Although what we got were not excellent, the restaurant’s popularity speaks differently, and we too enjoyed our meal enough to consider a takeout next time we’re in the area. Just like the highlands and their inhabitants’ cultures, Cao Nguyen isn’t the best, but it has its values.
Lunch for two and lotsa leftovers: $29.17