Pho in Hawaii

pho-factory-waikiki

Near our hotel is a shopping center, where we regrettably spent more time than we should have, eating overpriced fried rice (P.F. Chang’s, no less, T__T) and okonomiyaki. The reason is just that it was hot. Unbearably, relentlessly, suppressively hot. We couldn’t walk for five minutes without perspiring like the underside of the lid of a cheap rice cooker right after the rice is cooked. Being the indoor sloths we are, we ditched the inner foodie, became the very tourists lounging out at American chain restaurants while on vacation whom we cannot understand, and dined at the mall. It was actually satisfying. Meatball pho at Pho Factory in Royal Hawaiian Center (9.10). Oxtail pho at Pho Old Saigon (14.60). I haven’t seen oxtail pho in the mainland, but it’s strangely and pleasantly everywhere in Oahu’s pho menus. Pho Factory also serves it. The oxtail is meaty, softer (fattier) than the usual rare steak/brisket option. […]

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One Hot Pot & Grill: countryside taste for city price

lau-rieu-cua-dong

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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Recipe: Stir-fried bitter melon and egg (kho qua xao trung)

stirfried-bittermelon

Bitter melon is another thing that you either love or hate. Among my friends and relatives who have tried bitter melon, 42 percent(*) find it too bitter to try a second time. My mom is a special case. She used to shun it, then little me got a bad fever and had to eat it to help lowering my temperature (bitter melon has medicinal effects), mom was so worried that I wouldn’t eat it (like every toddler, I didn’t like food), but I chowed it down at first try, mom got curious, tried and started liking it too. That’s the story she told me, but I think she started liking it because she started making it, and everything she makes tastes great. Even in the Bay Area, bitter melon is somewhat rare and expensive. The only restaurant I know of that has bitter melon is China Village on Solano, and a plate costs 10.95 with 70% egg and 30% bitter melon. Sushi California used to have it as an Okinawan specialty but had to cut it due to low demand. Chinese […]

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one shot: steamed rolls at Banh Cuon Thien Thanh

bctt-steamedrolls

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

qae-banh-canh-tra-vinh

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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Danh’s Garden – Vietnamese pub foods

dg-dipping-sauces

Pub foods for Vietnamese are pretty diverse (**). The menu at Danh’s Garden in San Jose is basically a book, plus some handwritten ones on the wall. I single-handedly narrowed down our choices by a page when I refused anything goat or lamb (I often wonder why my friends can be so kind and still go to eat with this oddball). We picked 5 dishes at first, thinking it should be enough for a party of 5 – Vietnamese pub foods are no tapas or izakaya, things are not served in dainty palm-sized saucers, they’re entree-portion. With them come a plethora of dipping sauces and salt-and-pepper mix for who knows what. Honestly I don’t think we even used all of those sauces. The food were plenty seasoned already. Mực dồn chạo tôm – squid stuffed with shrimp paste. Light on the seasoning. Rating: 8/10. (It’s tasty and I can’t think of any flaw, but will I crave it? Probably not.) […]

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one shot: homemade hu tiu

hu-tiu-bot-loc

From Mom: hủ tíu bột lọc. Hu tiu is a common type of rice noodle in Southern Vietnam, often served in noodle-soup form, the noodle soup dish is of course also called “hu tiu“. The usual hu tiu noodle is characterized by its thin shape and chewy texture. Vietnamese love chewy noodles just as much if not more than any other country, so people began using various methods to make hu tiu (*) chewier (the soaking time before grinding, the grinding, washing the rice flour, the mixing ratio with water and other types of starch, the thickness to spread the mixture into a film, the temperature and time to steam it). Bánh bột lọc(**), a type of savory snack, is made with tapioca starch (cassava flour), so I guess hủ tíu bột lọc also contains tapioca starch. I spent an hour googling but expectedly found little and contradicting information about hu tiu bot loc – nobody in the business would reveal their secret. What I found online is hu tiu bot loc originated from Cần Thơ, and what I found in my bowl are fat (and flat) strings, whose color […]

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Mai’s Restaurant – 35 years and counting

banh-hoi-on-rice-paper

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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one shot: Bun Rieu at Ba Le Sandwich

ba-le-sandwich-bun-rieu

Good ol’ tomato and crab noodle soup from Southern Vietnam: bún riêu (pronounced |boon rhee-oo|). The broth looks alarmingly spicy but this soup is actually never spicy. The orange red color comes from tomato and annatto seeds, and if you’re lucky, crab roe (if fresh crabs are used for the soup). The sweetness of the broth comes from freshwater paddy crabs, where the whole crab (meat and shell) is ground to a paste and strained for the juice. It’s a delicate, distinctive sweetness that can’t be reproduced with dashi no moto, meat bones or mushroom. To deepen the flavor, the cook adds some mắm ruốc, fermented krill paste, to the broth. Traditionally, bun rieu has crab meat and tofu for the protein part, but bun rieu at Ba Le Sandwich is ladened with cha lua, pork and shrimp. […]

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Tinh Luat restaurant – thoughtful vegan food

tinh-luat-sugarcane-juice

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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