Archive for the 'Ca Kho' Category

Phở Nguyễn Hoàng – San Gabriel

Pho Nguyen Hoang Restaurant - San Gabriel

When The Astronomer and I go out for Vietnamese food, it’s almost always bun (rice noodles) or com tam (broken rice) that graces our table. Slightly tired of our standbys, on the past few occasions we’ve ordered com gia dinh instead. Com gia dinh is a set menu comprised of traditional dishes that Vietnamese families eat for lunch and dinner. It’s the kind of cuisine that I grew up on and find myself craving from time to time. The menu usually includes a braised meat, a soup (canh), a vegetable, and lots of steamed Jasmine rice. A restaurant’s version of com dia dinh is rarely as good as the real thing, but it’ll do when a sudden craving hits and grandma’s house is a hundred miles away.

Pho Nguyen Hoang Restaurant - San Gabriel

The Astronomer ate at Phở Nguyễn Hoàng in San Gabriel a few months back with a group of friends and found it solid enough to bring me in for a taste. We arrived at the restaurant on the later side of dinner and found the place still humming on a Saturday night. After perusing the com dia dinh offerings (located in the very back of the menu), we chose the four-course ($18) dinner for two. The three-course ($14) menu would’ve provided more than enough food for us, but we desired leftovers for the following day.

Pho Nguyen Hoang Restaurant - San Gabriel

The first course was goi tom thit, a simply dressed salad with shrimp, beef, cabbage, onions, herbs, and crushed peanuts. The ingredients were very fresh, but the dressing was too mild and too lightly applied to penetrate through the mass of greenery. If it had been given adequate time to soak, mingle, and settle, the goi would’ve been much tastier.

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Mũi Né II

Mui Ne is like crack. Once you start, it’s difficult to stop. Or so I’ve heard. The Astronomer and I had our first Mui Ne hit a couple weeks back and we had such a bloody blast that we returned this past weekend. The occasion? Hawk‘s 27th.

This time around we rented a sweet mini-bus to get us there. We left Saigon at six in the evening and arrived in Mui Ne at half past ten. Definitely far speedier than a tour bus. We stayed at our favorite hotel Sunshine Beach.

The next morning started off with a giant strawberry pancake. I love the pancakes at Sunshine Beach so much that I had another one for dinner. It’s been so long since I’ve had real maple syrup that I find Aunt Jemima palatable. Sadness.

The Astronomer had some mighty fine French toast. No brioche, but still very lovely. I ate his bananas. Score. After breakfast, Hawk, The Astronomer and I walked along the beach collecting sea shells and jumping over mysteriously warm “rivers” draining into the beach. And before we knew it, it was time for lunch.

The boys at Jibes.

Food porn alert! The Astronomer ordered fresh tagliatelle with pesto. The pasta was al dente and the sauce tasted wonderfully fresh.

Hawk ordered a cheeseburger. The meat was pan-fried rather than grilled, which resulted in a most satisfactory burger. EDIT: By “most satisfactory” I meant plain ‘ol satisfactory. English wasn’t my first language.

I grabbed some Vietnamese food next door at a restaurant named Lam Tong (92 Nguyen Dinh Chieu) and took it back to Jibes to eat with the boys. I ordered some bun gao (rice noodles with tofu and vegetables), which was just what I was in the mood for. Deep-fried tofu has a wonderful way of soaking up seasonings.

I also procured some cha gio to share. They were supposed to be stuffed with seafood, but all I could taste was pork. Following lunch, we all went to our rooms and crashed even though we had good intentions of kayaking. After napping, The Astronomer and I went for a run. Afterwards, I had a mango pancake for dinner. Breakfast for dinner is one of my favorite things.

The next morning started off with another run, which was followed by a dip in the ocean and breakfast. I wish I could have breakfast here every morning. The ambiance is just unbeatable.

Here’s The Astronomer eating toast with jam in his sopping running shorts.

For his main, The Astronomer ordered a croque-monsieur that was made with Laughing Cow cheese rather than gruyère. Regardless, it was still a great melted cheese sandwich.

I had my third pancake of the weekend. It was a delightful pineapple number.

After breakfast we read on the beach, while Hawk played golf at the Novatel.

When Hawk came back from the greens, we jammed over to Lam Tong for a Vietnamese lunch.

Hawkins requested that we order tofu, which was cool by me because I love the stuff. We settled on the sweet and sour variety.

We also ordered some vegetables in curry. It turned out that vegetables meant scallions and onions, which was a bit disappointing.

The ca kho was the best of the bunch. I can’t tell you what fish it was, but I can tell you that it was super-fatty. The caramelized sauce was nearly too sweet, but there was just enough fish sauce to keep it from tasting like candy. After lunch, we headed to the red sand dunes a couple kilometers up the road.

Hawk was pulling a Michael Jackson and walked around with an umbrella to protect himself from the sun

Hawk trying to snowboard upon the peaceful patterns in the sand.

The boys on the dunes.

The Astronomer sledding down the hill with a little assistance from a small boy who later beat the crap out of all of us. Note to self: make sure to negotiate sledding price before partaking!

Hawk getting in a killer work out in between sledding.

Exhausted. Happy Birthday, man.

Eating in Nha Trang I


After suffering through his first Boston winter, we treated our friend Matt to a trip to Nha Trang during his week-long stay in Vietnam. The goal of the trip was to nosh, relax and “get brown.”

By the way, Nha Trang will be the site of this year’s Miss Universe Pageant and the picture above is a billboard counting down the number of days until The Donald comes to town.


Unlike the Jersey Shore, the beaches in Nha Trang are peaceful and empty. The funny thing about Nha Trang is that the waves roll on to the shore sideways. The Astronomer and I took a dip as soon as we arrived, while Matt soaked up some rays because he’s not much of a dipper.

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After beach time, we walked toward Nha Trang’s major market. On the way, I bought 100 grams of xi muoi Thai. I usually avoid xi muoi because it is oftentimes too lip-puckeringly sour, but this version was just right—salty and sweet. I also bought 100 grams of me Thai because I am addicted to sugar coated tamarind candies.


We arrived at the market in the middle of the afternoon, which wasn’t the smartest because it was pretty much deserted and the vendors were napping.


Our first stop at the market was at an alfresco joint serving up bun sua—rice vermicelli noodles with jellyfish. It turns out that jellyfish isn’t all that exciting. I would say that it’s definitely more texturally interesting than it is flavorful. The broth was clear and mild and the cha and tomatoes came through where the jellyfish lacked.


Since Matt had never tried nuoc mia (sugarcane juice) we ordered him a tall glass.


The boy dug it!


Next we moved on to a che vendor. So many choices, so little time…


The Astronomer and Matt tried the che bap, which was warm and good, but a bit too sweet.


I had the che troi nuoc because it’s one of my favorites. Everything was exactly on point, down to the sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. The mung bean paste inside the tapioca balls was just the right among of salty to contrast with the overall sweetness. Mmm!


As we enjoyed our che, Matt spotted a bunch of live roosters hung from a motorbike. They were surprisingly quiet as a result of all the blood rushing to their heads. Poor guys.


Xoi! I seriously can’t pass a xoi vendor without buying some and dropped 3,000 VND on a small bag of xoi gac. The sticky rice was more oily than usual and a really vibrant orange.


While I munched on my newly acquired xoi, The Astronomer and Matt downed two bowls of mediocre mi quang—too much broth and too little zing.


The Astronomer and Matt have ridiculous metabolisms and are thus able to munch on cookies all day and still have killer abs. I, on the other hand, must participate in street aerobics and run daily to maintain my physique.


After the market, we walked to see the Cham towers. This is a view of the bridges of Nha Trang from the towers.


And here is an actual Cham tower. I don’t mean to be a traitor to my people, but Angkor Wat was heaps more impressive.


For our first dinner in the city, we dropped in at a large seafood emporium. The food wasn’t great, but we left stuffed and satisfied enough. Our first course was a jellyfish salad served with rice crackers.


Here’s a closeup of the goods. I think I ate enough jellyfish for a lifetime in Nha Trang.


Our second course was sweet and sour squid. The seasonings were meh and the squid was not Phu Quoc-tender. On a postive note, the pineapple chunks were tasty!


Our penultimate course was braised catfish in a claypot. This dish was the standout of the evening and different from the ca kho I’ve eaten in Saigon due to the generous employment of ginger.


And lastly, stir-fried noodles with seafood. Ho hum seafood makes for a ho hum noodle dish. However, a dousing of caramelized sauce from the ca kho turned things around.

Ngự Viên – Ho Chi Minh City

January 18, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

40 Ky Dong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 8437670
Website: none

Banh Beo – steamed rice cakes with minced shrimp, scallion oil, nuoc mam

Goi Mit – jackfruit salad with sesame rice crackers

Cha Gio – deep-fried rice paper with pork filing

Com Hen – rice with baby clams, herbs, sesame crackers, star fruit

Ca Hu Kho – fish braised in a clay pot

Sticky rice cakes, chicken sauteed with lemongrass

The Gastronomer and I recently paid a return visit to Ngu Vien to celebrate our friend Zach becoming Ashton Kutcher. All-in-all, the event was a success: the new girlfriend looked a bit younger than I had imagined and seemed surprisingly comfortable socializing with a bunch of recent college graduates, and the food was excellent. We were sufficiently inspired to follow up the luncheon with a triple date at the Saigon Superbowl, but that’s another story.

We started off the meal with some banh beo. I would have preferred to save it for Yen Do and order something more unique—why pay more for a dish that a streetside eatery does perfectly—but I couldn’t really complain about ordering an imperial classic at a restaurant specializing in Hue food. The banh beo was served individually in small dishes. It was well-executed, but I’ve decided that I prefer the version with all the cakes together in a large platter, drowning in sweet nuoc mam.

Next up was some goi mit and a plate of cha gio. The cha gio were hot out of the frying oil and quite tasty, but once again I would have been happy to wait and get them streetside. Served warm, the goi mit was really a standout. Less juicy and much heartier than most fruit-based salads, the dish’s flavors melded perfectly. The crunchy sesame crackers were an ideal vehicle for the mixture of jackfruit, pork, shrimp, and basil. We gobbled it right up.

In another foray into central Vietnamese cuisine, we decided to try the com hen. We’ve been told that this dish sucks in Saigon because the clams aren’t fresh, and indeed Ngu Vien was unable to recreate Hue’s magic. However, it was the best effort I’ve tasted around here–a worthwhile side dish.

Ever since our first meal at Ngu Vien, the Gastronomer has been raving about the ca hu kho, and she couldn’t resist ordering it again. It didn’t disappoint—although I find the plethora of small bones in the fish annoying, I would order it just to be able to pour the extra sauce on my rice.

Finally, we decided to try the chicken with sticky rice cakes. I really loved the little sweet pillows of fried sticky rice, and the chicken was delicious as well, if not particularly memorable. I’ve been impressed by the consistency of Ngu Vien’s cooking; I can’t help comparing it to Com Nieu Saigon, where the occasional horrendous dish nearly ruins the memory of the better ones.

While not entirely devoid of the typical Vietnamese eccentricities, the service at Ngu Vien is solid. They generally give you time to look over the menu without a waitress waiting awkwardly hovering over you, and the food comes in discrete courses rather than all at once. On this occasion we had a bit of trouble getting our white rice to arrive, but it was pleasant getting to savor a couple of dishes that actually felt like appetizers.

If I had a complaint, it would be that the place is somewhat lacking in atmosphere. It’s clean but not beautiful, and it has been nearly empty on both of our visits. This saddens me, because the food is terrific. Maybe toning down the neon signage and building a roof over the tables drove away their Vietnamese clientele. Or perhaps there are better crowds at dinner. In any case, I would choose the Ngu Vien experience over the gorgeous decor and hit-or-miss cuisine of the new Com Nieu Saigon any day. We’ll certainly be back.

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