Even with an endless parade of new restaurant openings in Los Angeles, my current obsession is an unassuming eight-year-old Vietnamese spot in El Monte. My friend Thien introduced me to Kim Hoa Hue Restaurant a few weeks ago, and I’ve already been back three times since. This place is really something dac biet.
Whereas most Vietnamese restaurants in town serve a menu of the country’s greatest hits, like pho, bun, and the like, Kim Hoa Hue specializes in Central Vietnamese fare, specifically the cuisine from Hue. As Vietnam’s former imperial capital, Hue is renowned for its sophisticated cuisine, developed by the cooks of the royal court.
On each of my visits here, my dining companions and I feasted like kings. Never missing from our spread was the Hue Combo ($6.25), a sample platter of delicate delights: banh beo (steamed rice cakes topped with shrimp and cracklins), banh nam (rice cakes embedded with shrimp and steamed in banana leaves), banh bot loc (shrimp and pork dumplings), cha (steamed pork forcemeat), and banh uot tom chay (rice sheets stuffed with minced shrimp).
While my mother and grandmother were particularly fond of the banh beo during our lunch, it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite—winners all around, I say.
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The Astronomer and I dined at Ngự Bình Restaurant earlier this summer while in Little Saigon for a very special wedding. With three hours to fill in between the ceremony and reception, we decided to stuff ourselves silly with Vietnamese food.
Little Saigon is slightly too far for us to explore on the regular, so we had to seize this opportunity to dine on the best Vietnamese food this side of the Pacific.
In the midst of all the wedding chaos, the bride and groom were kind enough to point us to Ngự Bình for Central Vietnamese cuisine. Here, chef and owner Mai Tran prepares family recipes that she learned in her hometown of Thua Thien. The delicate steamed dumplings and complex noodle soups that hail from this region never fail to make me swoon.
The first dish to land on our table was the mit xuc banh trang ($6.25). The young jackfruit salad was served warm with a smattering of Vietnamese coriander (rau ram), slivers of pork, and crushed peanuts. We scooped up the salad using the crisp sesame crackers and delivered the goods swiftly to our mouths. A bit of fish sauce was all that was needed to set the flavors properly ablaze.
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The Astronomer and I dined at Hoài Huế three years ago on a double date with my grandparents. Back then, the restaurant occupied a sad space that was dark, dingy, and cramped. The food and service were both good, but the ambiance was pretty pathetic, even for a Vietnamese joint.
Recently, Hoài Huế moved into infinitely superior digs a few blocks west on El Cajon Boulevard. On our lastest trip to San Diego, The Astronomer and I lunched in the new space along with my grandparents, mom, and cousin Jimmy.
Even though it had only been open a short while, Hoài Huế was totally packed—good news spreads rapidly in this food-loving community. The new restaurant is brightly lit, clean, spacious, and humming with happy noodle slurpers. We immediately scored a table for four, but had to wait for the one next to it to clear out. By the time the rest of our party arrived, the table was ready to go.
What I really, really liked about Hoài Huế was its concise menu. With fewer than twenty dishes on offer, most of which were from Central Vietnam, it was clear what the restaurant excelled at. Twenty dishes is extensive compared to the one-dish shacks in Vietnam, but a vast improvement from the tomes I’m presented with at most Vietnamese-American restaurants.
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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.
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