One Hot Pot & Grill: countryside taste for city price


These days I keep craving noodle soups. There’s just no end to it. Plus, it rained this morning. If I were in Houston, I would go downtown to get this: a crab noodle hotpot (lẩu riêu cua đồng). The crabs are tiny freshwater paddy crabs, pounded into a paste and strained to make the broth. Throw in some crab meat and fried tofu, some light seasoning, and you get a bubbling soup to dunk your noodles and vegetables. The size of the hotpot in this shop is enough for two, you have to pay a few dollars extra for some chrysanthemum greens (cải cúc or tần ô) and some thin rice vermicelli (they absorb the broth better than the flat kind), but the package doesn’t taste complete without them. What does this hotpot taste like? Imagine yourself in a remote area on a mildly hot day (not blazing though), sitting on a low chair under the shade, looking out to some green rice paddy in Can Tho, a canal in Giethoorn, or some other kind of open field with flowing water. You’re hungry but not famished, it’s hot enough that you just want […]

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one shot: steamed rolls at Banh Cuon Thien Thanh


My love for these will never cease. I’ve written way too much about banh cuon (Vietnamese steamed rice rolls) over the years, and if we’re friends, it’s highly probable that I have made or will make you try them the first chance I get. How much you like them kinda determines how much I like you. Bánh Cuốn Thiên Thanh focuses on the northern-style(*) bánh cuốn Thanh Trì, where small, flat steamed squares (banh uot) are served with cha lua (silk sausage) and/or shrimp flakes on the side. They also serve 2 other types: rolls with pork and mushroom – banh cuon thit (pictured above), and rolls with grilled pork – banh cuon thit nuong. The owner told my mom that the younger kids (pointing at me) often liked the third type the most. I always stick to the second. […]

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Noodle soup: Banh canh Que Anh & Que Em


Quite possibly the cheesiest name of a store I’ve ever seen: Bánh Canh Quê Anh & Quê Em – “bánh canh [from] your hometown and my hometown” (it doesn’t sound cheesy translated into English, but trust me, it’s like Twilight’s Edward Cullen in noodle soup form). Which is actually fitting, since banh canh is commoner’s grub, not a bourgeois lunch. You won’t find a classy madame dressing up just to go out for banh canh. The poor thing will never be elevated to the level of pho. I love it. I grew up eating it before I was born (literally). Backstory can be told in person, but despite eating so many bowls, I never knew that there was so many types of banh canh. Que Anh & Que Em offered 30 types (see menu at the bottom), 14 of which are no more traditional than the Spider Roll, but the other 16 are attached to geographical regions in Vietnam, and thus, in this case, more meritable. Banh canh is a thick, chewy, slippery rice noodle (with tapioca starch). It’s similar enough to udon in appearance and texture (as the shop aptly translates it […]

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one shot: Profiteroles at Cafe Rabelais


Even if you don’t like anything at Cafe Rabelais (I didn’t), this mini-mountain of profiteroles loaded with ice cream is still as resistible as a pool in the summer, and worth every second you spend with it too. To top, it’s HUGE. THREE orange-size puffs, for only $6.50! We thought it was going to be just one cream puff, you know, like how desserts are usually portioned… but no, the pastry chef has a heart of gold. Next time I’m at Rive Village, I’ll swing by for a profiterole recharge. 😉 Sidney and the cream puffs. See how big this dessert is? […]

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one shot: Roasted duck pad thai at Nara Thai


Juicy, tender duck packed with sweet-savory marinade, you know, the typical red roasted duck that you see hanging by the neck at cleanliness-questionable Chinese eateries in Chinatown. But in this case, we don’t see the hanging ducks, the restaurant is Thai, and at least from where we’re sitting, everything looks clean(*). The noodle, too, is flavorful. The same sweet-savory vibe. Chewy and not soaking wet. I was doing well until the last maybe 3-4 bites and I could feel the part under my diaphragm harden, like a water balloon. I can’t ask for a box for 3-4 bites, so I stuffed it in. To the very last noodle. […]

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Mai’s Restaurant – 35 years and counting


My junior year of high school was my first year ever in America, and I was still learning the rope of living here, high school dance among other things. A friend invited me to Homecoming. For the pre-dance dinner, he talked about going to a Vietnamese restaurant named Mai in Houston. I didn’t know exactly where it was or what it was (this was 2002, Google Maps and Yelp didn’t exist), but I thought that was considerate of him. In the end, we went to a steakhouse instead, I thought it was because Mai was a bit too far away, and I was left wondering what Mai was like. A few years later, my host parents mentioned Mai again in passing conversation, and suggested we went together sometime. The place, dated back to 1978, is known as the very first Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, and pretty much every Houstonian knows at least its name. My parents and I were interested, but again, days passed and we forgot. One day in early 2010, news came that the restaurant had been destroyed by a fire. We sighed, somewhat regretful. Luckily, it reopened. I forget how and when we […]

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The macaron that keeps you wanting for more


What defines a good macaron? I googled, but found only “10 signs of a bad macaron“. My pâtissière friend Hanna Lim told me a few criteria: a good macaron should look smooth on the surface, crunchy (but not crumbly) on the outside and a little chewy(*) inside, it should not fall apart when you take a bite, it should be a clean bite – no crumbs, no cream spewing out on the side. Looking through the Facebook page of The Pastry of Dreams, I see gliding smooth macarons and beautiful cookie-to-cream ratio. Visually, they are perfect. But what impresses me most is their taste. These almond cookies reflect what real fruits and nuts taste like in a cookie. Instead of being masked by sugar, the flavors that each cookie is supposed to contain shine through. “There are no shortcuts in our pastries,” says Liz Laval, the chemist-turn-pastry-chef who started The Pastry of Dreams. For something as simple as vanilla, she uses special vanilla beans imported from Madagascar to France and shipped to her by family living in France. “The one from here and the one that people […]

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Little Texas Cookbook


Found this little guy on a bookshelf at home. I couldn’t sleep last night and was browsing the shelves for something to read (which is obviously a great idea to cure insomnia – the more I read the more awake I am, unless it’s a physics book). As a pâtissière friend says, recipe books are only for ideas, so I never read them (I hardly even look at them at bookstores). My mother, like all Vietnamese mothers, never uses recipes either, so I was confused for a second of where this came from. Then I found my host mom’s writing on the inner cover – it was a new year gift from her and my host dad. I lived with them in Texas during my year of exchange study. That year was filled with corn bread, lima bean soup, baked beans and sausage for dinner, pecan pie and Blue Bell ice cream for desserts, and my host dad’s cheese balls for snacks. When I opened the first page of this Little Texas Cookbook, there it was, a recipe for Spicy Cheese Balls. This recipe is completely different from my host dad’s recipe (if he uses a […]

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Tinh Luat restaurant – thoughtful vegan food


In this unassuming restaurant, I found the best sugarcane juice I’ve ever had. When the waiter asked if we would like three glasses of fresh-squeezed(*) sugarcane juice for the table, only my dad was persuaded. The waiter was quite earnest too, he insisted that it was good and that it would induce no extra cost (the meal is buffet-style for a modest $8.99/person, roughly the cost of a bowl of pho in Berkeley). However, the sugarcane juices I’d had before, although good, were soon too sweet, and for a hot summer day I find sugar particularly less appetizing than plain water, so I declined. Immediately after I took a sip from my dad’s glass, I changed my mind. I asked the same waiter for a glass, he laughed at me of course, “Told you it was good!”. It was not sugary, but sweet in a vegetal way, somewhat like an intensified goji berry tea. My dad ordered a second glass for himself. […]

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Went home to eat


Been one measly week since I got back to the West Coast, and my stomach is already shifting in discomfort with the regular irregular dining pattern of a student, or perhaps of just someone living alone. At home, on weekdays, we have dinner at 5 while watching TV. For lunch there are banh bao that Mom made, each as big as a small fist with a pork ball and a half an egg inside, refrigerated. I just need to microwave it for 1 minute. On Saturday or Sunday, I’m in charge of choosing a restaurant for lunch, preferably somewhere near Bellaire, where Mom buys a couple of banh gio, which I can also have for lunch during the week, and a pound of cha lua. For dinner, usually something small, since we are already too full from lunch. This time home, my favorite dinner has been toasted french bread with pâté and cha lua. (Mom tucked 2 cans of pâté into my backpack before the flight. Airport security didn’t like the look of them on screen so they had to do a bag check. […]

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