Archive for the 'Cha Ca Thanh Long' Category

Viet Noodle Bar – Los Angeles (Atwater Village)

Viet Noodle Bar - Los Angeles

While I was living in Vietnam, one of the most popular restaurant trends was repackaging traditional street food with Western aesthetics in mind. Dubbed “air-con street food” by the expatriate crowd, these joints served Vietnamese fare in comfortable settings, complete with competent waiters and English language menus. While I didn’t care too much for these sterile eateries, places like  Pho 24 and Bun Bo Xu were extremely popular with middle-class locals, tourists, and expats.

I thought that I had left air-con street food behind me when I moved to Los Angeles, but the moment I stepped into Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village, I was instantly transported back in time. Something about the exposed brick walls, sleek furnishings, and the romantically dated Vespa on display was reminiscent of District 1, Saigon.

Viet Noodle Bar - Los Angeles

Viet Noodle Bar serves a hodgepodge of Vietnamese dishes to a hip and trendy crowd.  According to the Los Angeles Times article “Inspired by a World of Ingredients”, the restaurant’s owner, Viet Tran, traveled across North Vietnam for five years and studied noodle-making and soy milk-making in little villages. Viet Soy Cafe in Silverlake and Viet Noodle Bar were inspired by his experiences abroad.

Viet Noodle Bar - Los Angeles

My posse of noodle-goers [Laurie, Diana, and Anjali] and I started with an order of jicama spring rolls, also known as bo bia ($5). Rolled to order, each one was filled with tofu, a jicama and carrot slaw, fried shallots, and a basil leaf. A sweet hoisin dipping sauce was served on the side. Although I generally prefer the non-vegetarian version of this dish, the freshness of the ingredients, especially the powerful punch of the basil, made me forget about the missing Chinese sausages and scrambled eggs.

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Xie Xie – New York City

THE XIE XIE PROJECT

New York City is currently experiencing an exciting banh mi renaissance. Chefs of Vietnamese decent, as well as those who are inspired by Vietnam’s culinary traditions, are taking the humble banh mi and giving it a shiny makeover. In place of the usual mix of cold cuts and head cheeses are thoroughly novel ingredients, like juicy Polish kielbasa and spicy curried beef. In the process of redefining Vietnam’s beloved street food, banh mi has become a household name throughout all five boroughs. Julia Moskin covered this trend last April for the New York Times in her piece “Building on Layers of Tradition.”

While visiting New York, I made it a point to sample a nontraditional Vietnamese sandwich. California is bursting with delis serving banh mi, but I have yet to encounter a shop marching to a uniquely fusion tune. For the time being, New York City is the epicenter of banh mi version 2.0.

THE XIE XIE PROJECT

An excellent post on Serious Eats brought The Astronomer and me to Xie Xie, Chef Angelo Sosa’s prettily appointed Midtown shop. The offering that caught my eye was the Cha Ca La Vong ($8.75), which is named after a famous Hanoi restaurant that specializes in cha ca Thanh Long. A northern Vietnamese dish, cha ca Thanh Long is comprised of tumeric-marinated fish sauteed over high heat with green onions and fresh dill. I didn’t grow up eating cha ca Thanh Long, but became mildly obsessed with it while living in Vietnam.

THE XIE XIE PROJECT

Chef Sosa’s cha ca-inspired sandwich was seriously spectacular. Mingling with the generous fillet of turmeric-laced tilapia was Sriracha-infused mayonnaise, a sweet onion jam, and loads of fresh dill. When the sandwich arrived at our table, the smell of fresh herbs smacked us both in the face, just like it did while dining in Hanoi. The toasty baguette kept the fish in place and held onto every last sprig of dill. Of all the amazing foods I ate during my latest journey to New York City, it’s this sandwich that I cannot get out of my mind.

Xie Xie *CLOSED*
645 Ninth Avenue
New York, NY 10036
Phone: 212-265-2975

Xie Xie on Urbanspoon

Xie Xie in New York

Viễn Đông Restaurant – Garden Grove

Little Saigon, a sprawling suburban neighborhood in Orange County, is home to the largest population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. While I am familiar with Saigon’s culinary scene, when it comes to its American counterpart, I still have much to learn.

The city’s major arteries of Westminster, Brookhurst, and Bolsa are bustling with businesses hawking everything under the Vietnamese sun: from music to clothing to house wares and of course, food. What’s most notable about the Vietnamese food found in Little Saigon is the regional diversity. The distinct culinary styles of Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnam are well-represented and executed as authentically as America allows.

Growing up an hour and a half south in San Diego, I used to travel to Little Saigon with my grandparents every couple of years to visit their friends who resided in the area. The highlight of these trips for me was the meals we shared at Viễn Đông restaurant. My grandparents always dined here for the Northern Vietnamese fare (mon bac)—specific regional specialties that aren’t in my family’s culinary repertoire.

A recent road trip to San Diego with The Astronomer provided the perfect excuse to revisit Viễn Đông.

Viễn Đông is housed in a clean, spacious, and impressively understated (by Vietnamese standards) space. The restaurant was fairly empty the late Friday afternoon we dined, which meant prompt and pleasant service from start to finish.

I ordered a bowl of bun rieu oc tom moc ($6.75), one of my family’s standbys at Viễn Đông. Even though I’ve been back in America for nearly a year, I still can’t get over how large the portions are at Vietnamese restaurants here. The enormous bowl of bun rieu was filled with hunks of fried tofu, ground crab, vermicelli noodles, meatballs, tomatoes, and periwinkle snails. The orange-tinged broth was hot and sour, just the way I like it.

The bun rieu was served with a plate of garnishes that included bean sprouts, shredded romaine lettuce, a wedge of lime, and mam ruoc (fermented shrimp paste).

The Astronomer’s Cha Ca Thanh Long ($12.95) arrived on a sizzling platter that filled the air with the awesome scent of seared fresh dill. The generous fillet of turmeric-laced catfish was adorned with heaps of onions and scallions.

Everything about this dish was excellent, except that it wasn’t served Hanoi-style—in a pan atop a butane burner. The sizzling platter cooled down too fast, leaving the green and white onions mostly raw.

Accompanying the fish were warm vermicelli noodles, a mountain of fresh herbs, rice crackers, and toasted peanuts.

The perfect bowl of Cha Ca Thanh Long marries all of the ingredients together—a layer of noodles topped with chunks of fish, a smattering of peanuts, shattered rice crackers, an abundance of aromatics, and a drizzle of mam ruoc or nuoc cham.

Our Northern Vietnamese lunch at Viễn Đông left us stuffed to the gills and full of giddy memories from our travels.

Viễn Đông Restaurant
14271 Brookhurst Street
Garden Grove, CA 92843
Phone: 714-531-8253

Hanoi Highlights I

The first stop on our long road back to America was the capital city of Hanoi. It’s hard to believe that I spent an entire year in Vietnam without venturing further north than Hue, but it’s probably because I knew I would be heading in this direction before peacing out. The Astronomer, on the other hand, spent quite a bit of time in Hanoi for business and definitely knows his way around town.

We flew from Saigon to Hanoi on Jetstar Pacific and arrived after the sun had set. We dropped off our bags in our hotel room located in the Old Quarter and headed off to find some good eats. Since The Astronomer knows the Old Quarter (and all of its secrets) like the back of his hand, he led me to Xoi Yen because I am a sticky rice fiend.

I went for the classic xoi xeo (7,000 VND)—sweet sticky rice topped with fried shallots and sheets of mung bean paste that resemble Parmesan cheese. The Astronomer ordered a portion of xoi ngo (15,000)—sticky rice with corn topped witdh cha mo (pork forcemeat), mung bean paste and fried shallots. The two orders of sticky rice were served with a bowl of pickled cucumbers on the side. The spicy and sour cucumbers contrasted nicely with the sweet sticky rice.

Still a bit hungry after our sticky rice snack, The Astronomer and I stumbled upon a woman serving up an impressive number of Northern dishes in a cramped street side set up. We ordered three pho cuon (3,000 VND each) and two nem chua ran (3,000 VND each). Unfortunately, both the pho cuon (grilled meat and herbs wrapped in rice noodle sheets) and nem chua ran (deep-fried fermented pork) turned out to be ho hum. I don’t think it was the cook’s fault that these dishes didn’t rock. When it comes down to it, pho cuon and nem chua ran aren’t innately brilliant dishes. Pho cuon lacks a proper dipping sauce (neon orange chili sauce from a squirt bottle doesn’t count), while nem chua ran needs a good punch of fresh herbs.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel room and crashed. I had a hard time sleeping my first night away from Saigon—there’s something about the people and the spirit of the city that tugs and pulls at me. I’ve moved around quite a bit in my adult life so it was really a novel sensation to actually yearn to be somewhere. Although it took a while, I eventually caught some much-needed Zs.

The next morning didn’t begin as bright or as early as we had hoped. I was a bit bummed about missing our hotel’s complimentary breakfast, but my frown was quickly turned upside down with one wiff of cha ca. Cha ca is hands down the greatest dish to come out of Hanoi. Hearty chunks of white fish marinated in tumeric are fired up tableside with a forest of green onions and fresh dill. The fish and greens are eaten with an assortment of accompaniments including vermicelli rice noodles, peanuts, herbs, fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste. The dish is so good that I don’t mind reeking of fish and dill for the rest of the day.

Even though Cha Ca La Vong receives all of the accolades and press (including a visit from Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Eats), those in the know head to Cha Ca Thang Long (80,000 per portion) for this local delicacy. And let’s set the record straight—there’s nothing bizarre about fried fish with dill.

The rest of the day was spent buying train tickets to Sapa and walking around Lake Hoan Kiem.

Two scholars—The Astronomer and Ly Thai To.

Shady trees and winding paths—two lovely non-edible Hanoi offerings. After exploring the city scape, The Astronomer and I went on a run that consisted of multiple laps around the lake and dodging tourists in the Old Quarter—a pleasure compared to our options in Saigon.

For dinner we stayed in the Old Quarter and noshed on barbecued pigeon (chim quay - 45,000 VND) and  rice noodles with beef (pho xao – 20,000 VND). Pickled cucumbers and dish of kalamansi, chili and salt were served on the side.

The barbecued pigeon was succulent, but a bit too oily. We dipped the meat in a simple sauce made from kalamansi juice, chillies and salt to combat the oiliness. The pho xao was a solid plate of carbs—it’s hard to mess up stir-fried noodles, veggies and meat smothered in a light gravy.

Because dinner never ends with just one eatery for us, The Astronomer and I jammed over to the street side vendor we discovered the previous evening  and ordered a plate of mien xao cua Thai Lan (20,000 VND). The vendor recognized our faces and quickly wok’d up a heap of glass noodles with crabmeat and fresh beansprouts. Whereas the mien xao cua served at the Crab Shack in Saigon contains lots of fresh crab meat, the crab in this dish tasted strangely crunchy and not at all fresh.

The following day we met up with “Teddy,” a former editor of mine, at Dac Kim for a lunch of nem cua be (crab-stuffed eggrolls) and bun cha.

The Astronomer was impressed with this eatery on an earlier visit, and Teddy guaranteed that the place was great, so it really wasn’t a surprise that both the bun cha and nem cua be were executed outrageously well. Along with Cha Ca Thanh Long, Dac Kim is definitely a not-to-be-missed stop during a trip to Hanoi.

We took Teddy’s advice and hit up Banh Cuon Gia Truyen in the Old Quarter for dinner. This woman makes each banh cuon fresh to order.

Banh cuon—delicate rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms—are another one of Hanoi’s specialties. Even though the banh cuon here was comparable to what we’ve eaten in Saigon, a portion cost twice as much.  We also had to fork over some extra dong for cha (pork forcemeat) because it wasn’t included. Not cool, Hanoi. Banh cuon without cha is like Oreo cookies without the cream in the center.

Street side roastie.

After our puny plate of banh cuon, The Astronomer took me to an eatery specializing in eel. The first time he ate here, The Astronomer ordered a bowl of noodle soup with crunchy fried eels and glass noodles, which were good but not great. On this occasion, we listened to the waiter and ordered stir-fried glass noodles with eggs and topped with the same fried eels, which turned out to be really spectacular.

Our third course of the evening was a bowl of bun thang at 12 Hang Dieu Street. Compared to stellar Vietnamese noodle soups like bo kho, bun rieu and bun mang, this Northern-style chicken soup just left me bored. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good bowl of soup, but it can’t hit the spot like the big dogs can.

For  dessert, The Astronomer picked up a plate of profiteroles from a random French bakery in the Old Quarter. Although they looked appetizing, the cream tasted like bubblegum. The Astronomer ate one and we gave the rest to a street vendor. Bubblicious puffs just ain’t our thing.

The following morning we cruised the bay of Halong.

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