Cơm Tấm Thiên Hương uses two full pages to write all different combinations of their one dish: cơm tấm (broken rice) with meats, egg, and tofu. If they just list the “toppings” and their corresponding price, like for a pizza, the menu would condense down to the size of a calculator. Common toppings for broken rice are grilled pork (or chicken, or beef), chả trứng (egg loaf), tàu hủ ki (flaky fried tofu), bì (shredded pork skin), and fancier, chạo tôm (shrimp sausage on sugarcane). If you can choose up to 4 toppings on your plate, combinatorics tells us that’s 98 possible combinations. If you read Thiên Hương’s two-page menu and don’t see your perfect fit, just tell the waiter what you’d like. Broken rice can be custom-made, so to speak.
What makes broken rice superior to normal rice is its broken nature. Through milling, the germs, which are about 1/10 of a rice grain, break away from the endosperms (the part we eat and call “white rice”) and get mixed with other broken bits of the grains to form “tấm“. Millers used to collect tấm from the whole grains as an accidental byproduct and sell it at a cheaper price, but many people came to recognize that cooked tấm gives a better fragrance and tastes sweeter than normal rice, since it’s the most nourished part of a grain. By and by its popularity rises, factories these days even purposefully choose good rice to fracture and produce good broken rice with different desired ratios of germ to broken endosperm. The more germ the better, of course, but also the harder it is to cook. The germs don’t expand as much as the endosperm while boiled, the best cơm tấm comes by steaming tấm that has been soaked for a few hours in cold water. The grain bits then don’t cling to each other like normal rice, its texture as a whole is fine and dainty (similar to couscous). Pour in a few spoonfuls of the all-time sweet and savory nước mắm and cơm tấm is complete.
The meat and all are just bonus prize. I grew up loving chargrilled pork chop, egg loaf, and pork skin with my broken rice. But the grilled chicken at Thiên Hương is much juicier than the chop, and that sweetness afterchew from the sugarcane stick makes chạo tôm a wise company. Try to mix the egg and vermicelli bits of the egg loaf with the rice… mmmm I shouldn’t write this post at midnight, there’s not even pizza delivery this late.
To shake things up from the veggie end, Thiên Hương also adds a few pickled củ kiệu, all sweet and crunchy, with some lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and pickled carrots. Rabbit food? Yum.
I bet my keyboard that no sane body who enters here orders the lone token noodle soups at the bottom of the menu. Among the Vietnamese diners in the States, I haven’t seen anyone going full force focused like Cơm Tấm Thiên Hương, and they make the best cơm tấm, and I love it!
Address: Cơm Tấm Thiên Hương 2 (inside Grand Century Mall)
1111 Story Road #1086
San Jose, CA 95122
Money matter: $21.41 for two lunch plates and a soursop smoothie