Archive for the 'Banh It Tran' Category

Ngự Bình Restaurant – Westminster

Ngu Binh Restaurant - Westminster

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.

Ngu Binh Restaurant - Westminster

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.

Ngu Binh Restaurant - Westminster

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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Gia Hội 2 – Ho Chi Minh City

June 19, 26 and 27, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

2 Nguyen Huy Tu Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Gia Hoi moved to a new location in Fall 2011:
26 Nguyen Huu Cau Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 8202385
Website: none

Imperial Cuisine – clockwise from top left – com hen, hen xao, banh uot thit nuong, bun bo Hue, banh it tran, banh beo, bun thit nuong, banh khoai, banh it ram (center)

Who loves Hue cuisine? We do!

The Astronomer and I ate at Gia Hội 2 for the first time three weeks ago and we’ve been back three times since then. You could say that we’re crushing hardcore on this place, and it’s not hard to see (and taste) why. The menu here is short, sweet and focused on the foods of the former imperial capital. Hen (baby clams) are heavily featured.

Last fall, The Astronomer and I visited Hue and tasted com hen for the very first time. Dare I say it was love at first bite. After my grandpa, I am convinced that com hen is the second best thing to come out of Hue. Prior to discovering Gia Hội 2, we only had mediocre versions of this dish in Saigon.

The com hen (12,000 VND) here is as close to the real deal as we’ve come across down south. All of the essential components of com hen are present and splendid—fresh herbs (Vietnamese coriander, basil), banana flower, crispy pork rinds, sesame seeds, peanuts, warm clam broth, fermented shrimp paste and of course, flavorful baby clams. Unlike your average Vietnamese, I’m not too good with chillies. Gia Hội 2 serves up a sweet and subtly spicy variety that I’m totally down with. Mmm, boy.

Another spectacular baby clam dish is hen xao (16,000 VND), which consists of clams stir-fried in lots of butter along with Vietnamese coriander and onions. The clam mixture is scooped up with toasted rice crackers. I like not bothering with utensils. The clams are packed with so much flavor that this simple preparation highlights all of its natural goodness. A squeeze of lime juice and a bit of shrimp paste add the finishing touches.

Another one of our favorites is the banh uot thit nuong (18,000 VND). Growing up, banh uot was served plain with nuoc mam, not stuffed with thit nuong (grilled meat). It’s hard to believe that the plain-ish dish I had as a kid is related to the one served here. Gia Hội 2’s banh uot thit nuong consists of a sheet of rice paper wrapped with pieces of barbecued pork and a single mint leaf. The banh uot is served with a special dipping sauce with little pieces of minced meat that’s thick and sweeter than you’d expect. The restaurant also serves a shrimp (banh uot tom) variety that we’ve yet to try.

The banh it ram (right – 17,000 VND) and banh it tran (15,000 VND) are two lovely appetizers or post-meal space fillers. The Astronomer isn’t a fan of dough-y chewy balls, but luckily our dining companions have been game to share them with me. The banh it ram are filled with a single caramelized shrimp (tom kho), while the banh it tran are filled with mung bean paste. Another difference between the two is the crispy rice cracker that the banh it ram sits upon. I like both equally.

Banh beo (20,000 VND), steamed rice cakes, is served two ways here—in individual dishes and stacked on plates. When Nina dined with us, she requested that we order the individual ones. Each banh beo was sprinkled with minced shrimp, scallion oil and crispy pork rinds. Banh beo‘s signature sweet nuoc mam was served on the side.

There are a lot of winners on Gia Hội 2’s menu and no all-out losers, but the bun bon Hue (15,000) VND and banh khoai (20,000 VND) didn’t quite move us.

If a trip to Hue isn’t in the cards, Gia Hội 2 is a great place to go for a taste of the emperor’s cuisine.

Click here for a New York Times article about Hue cuisine: “Vietnamese Cuisine: Echo’s of Empire.”

Eating in District 4

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The Astronomer and I have taken a good number of friends and gas•tron•o•my readers on food tours of District 4, but never took ourselves on one until last Saturday.

While we usually stick to Ton That Thuyet Street, also known as the “corridor of temptation,” we decided to venture into unchartered waters on this trip. I started off the tour with a cool hunk of Vietnamese JELLO from my regular dealer, while the Astronomer dug into a bowl of bun thit xao (10,000 VND). The Astronomer has eaten countless bowls of bun thit nuong, but this was his first bowl of its sister dish.

What sets bun thit xao apart from its well-known sibling is how the meat is prepared. Rather than grilled, these slices of lemongrass marinated pork are pan-fried with tomatoes and onions. The Astronomer liked this dish just as much as his old standby.

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As The Astronomer finished up his noodles, a vendor selling pickled fruits and green mangoes rolled our way. During a conversation with my mom a few months back, she mentioned that green mangoes dipped in fish sauce were a divine treat that I needed to try. I ordered half a mango (2,000 VND), which the vendor sliced up and served with a cup of sugary fish sauce with chilies.

While I can’t say I prefer this combination over ripe and juicy mangoes eaten straight up, the intermingling of tart, sweet, spicy and salty flavors were very good.

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The fish sauce dip was syrupy thick, spicy and contained a heap of undissolved sugar to mellow out the sour mango.

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Next, I went for a super-tall cup of sương sa hột lựu (3,000 VND), which is a variety of che that contains black beans, green tapioca strands, pomegranate seeds, agar agar, coconut milk and crushed ice. Although seemingly harmless, the hefty cup of che filled me up quite a bit.

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In between bites, we saw a statue of an angel viciously stabbing something or another. Yikes. I thought angels were peaceful beings…

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The Astronomer ducked into an awning-covered stall selling bun dishes and cha gio for his second and third course. The cha gio (2,000 VND each) were surprisingly crisp for having sat around for awhile. The rice paper wrapping was golden and blistered, while the innards were porky and well-seasoned. I detected some taro root in the mush of innards as well. Mmm, just like Bà Sáu‘s.

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He followed up the two cha gio with another bowl of bun. This time around, it was bun thit bo la lot (14,000 VND). Bo la lot are savory morsels of grilled meat wrapped in betel leaves. Each bite is slightly sweet and very fragrant.

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Who has two thumbs and loves noodles and grilled animal protein drenched in nuoc mam? The Astronomer!

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While exploring the hidden alleyways in District 4, we found a giant “rock cave,” also known as a nativity scene. It was connected to a rather impressive Catholic church complex undergoing renovations.

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While my heart doesn’t skip a beat for doughnuts the way The Astronomer’s does, banh cam (1,000 VND) still has a very special place in it. We bought two and happily scarfed them down while zigzagging through our ‘hood.

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This little doggy is chillin’ in a pile of brand new hangers.

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Even though we were both quite stuffed at this point on the tour, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample bánh ít trần (5,000 VND). This dish is a savory version of one of my all-time favorite desserts, che troi nuoc. Bánh ít trần are medium-sized tapioca balls stuffed with mung bean paste, topped with scallion oil and pickled carrots and daikon, and served in a sweet fish sauce with coconut milk.

All of the usual Vietnamese food suspects are present and accounted for—sweet, sour, salty, sticky, chewy and awesome.

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As we neared home, I spotted a vendor selling goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) for 1,000 VND a piece, which is ridiculously cheap even by Vietnam standards. The Astronomer ordered two to see if they were any good. Although they were missing the quintessential boiled shrimps, these spring rolls were not the least bit shabby.

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For my final course, I ate some xoi gac (gac fruit sticky rice – 2,000 VND) that I procured earlier. Although I’m not one-hundred percent certain, I’m pretty sure the vendor uses actual gac fruit rather than coloring because I sometimes find gac seeds in my xoi. However, the color does strike me as a bit artificial. The crushed peanuts atop the xoi are a tasty touch.

Even though The Astronomer and I have lived in Vietnam for quite some time, we’re still floored by how inexpensive delicious food is. Our afternoon food tour of District 4 set us back $3. That’s crazy business.

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