When I go out for Vietnamese food these days, it’s almost always at the suggestion of another (usually The Astronomer). The Vietnamese restaurants in Los Angeles are generally very good, but I’m often daunted by their hundred-item menus and super-sized portions. Rather than risk disappointment, I’ve decided to save my appetite for visits to grandma’s house and return visits to the motherland. The opportunities to indulge in my favorite cuisine may be infrequent, but at least it’s just the way I fancy it when I do.
Even though I don’t seek out Vietnamese restaurants, I find myself sitting at one about once a quarter. My most recent outing was initiated by my friend Craig. He was itching to try seven courses of beef (bò 7 món) and I was game to show him the ropes. Our party of three arrived at Vietnam Restaurant sometime past 8 PM on a Friday night. The stand-alone shack was packed with diners, and after a twenty minute wait, we scored a table by the window.
I started dinner off with nuoc xi muoi, a salted plum drink served over ice. It was an impulsive choice that turned out to be an absolutely delightful punch of salty, sour, and sweet. I ordered another soon after I polished off the first glass.
Before the onslaught of red meat began, I chose two light bites to start. The first to arrive was bánh bèo. The steamed rice cakes were topped with mung bean paste, scallion oil, and fluorescent orange shrimp dust. Not to worry, the shrimp’s hue was the result of natural coloring.
In southern Vietnam where my family is from, bánh bèo is eaten with a sweetened fish sauce. Vietnam Restaurant serves bánh bèo in the style of central Vietnam, with regular nước chấm and coconut milk. It was my first time eating bánh bèo this way and I was definitely impressed. The rich and creamy coconut milk coupled with the sweet and tangy fish sauce was a delicious pairing. The different sauces changed the entire profile of the dish, giving it more body and oomph. Discovering new twists on my favorite Vietnamese dishes is a real treat.
We also shared a plate of bánh hỏi chạo tôm, woven rice noodles topped with grilled shrimp forcemeat and scallion oil. This dish was more standard than the previous, but enjoyable nevertheless. My only complaint was that the shrimp (chạo tôm) wasn’t served wrapped around a stick of sugarcane. Everyone knows that noshing on the sugarcane afterward is the best part. Soon after we finished up the appetizers, it was time for seven courses of beef.
Before the meats arrived, the stage was set with all the proper accouterments: A bowl of warm water arrived along with a stack of rice paper. Individual bowls filled with nước chấm were provided for everyone at the table. A small canister of mắm nêm (a pungent and chunky sauce made with fermented anchovies and pineapples) was present for those feeling adventurous. And a plate piled with pickled carrots and daikon, as well as cucumbers, green bananas, and bean sprouts was on deck as well.
The centerpiece was a forest of fresh herbs and greenery. For the uninitiated, seven courses of beef is a DIY garnish, wrap, and dip fest. Each course is garnished with herbs, greens, and vegetables, then wrapped with rice paper, and dipped in either nước chấm or mắm nêm. While I’ve been known to indulge in pure proteins out of laziness, The Astronomer is a staunch garnisher.
The first course was bò nhúng dấm. A plate of thinly sliced meat arrived at the table along with a brazier. We cooked the meat in boiling vinegar until it was done to our liking. Mine was still perfectly pink.
Courses two through five arrived on a single plate. They included a few servings of bò nướng mỡ chài, ground beef rolled in caul fat, which tasted like a mouthful of rich, beefy goodness imbued with grillin’ essence…
…bò nướng hành, which consisted of strips of beef rolled around sliced scallions. I liked how the scallions were still a little snappy.
…bò chả đùm, a meatball dotted with glass noodles, petite peas, and woodear mushrooms served with shrimp chips. This is usually one of my favorite courses, but this version was a touch dry.
…and best of all, bò lá lốt, ground seasoned beef rolled in wild betel leaves. The Astronomer and I saved this one for last because it’s our favorite. In fact, we’ve been known to bypass the extraneous six courses of beef and order just a plate of these.
Course number six consisted of thinly sliced beef seasoned with soy sauce, salt, and pepper and topped with pickled onions. The flavors reminded me of the steak dinners of my youth—simple seasonings coupled with well-done meat.
And finally, cháo bò, a soothing beef porridge topped with cilantro, scallions, onions, and fresh ginger. The broth tasted like pho.
From start to finish, I was taken aback by the quality and tastiness of Vietnam Restaurant (especially the bánh bèo). In addition to the food, the crowd and service were amiable and fun. Things are looking up for stateside Vietnamese restaurants and me. It’s about time.
340 West Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA 91776