Chef Connie Tran’s bi-monthly pop-up exploring Vietnamese food traditions brings together classic Vietnamese dishes with a smattering of twists that a Vietnamese grandma probably wouldn’t approve of, in a good way. Filing my second Scouting Report, “BEP Kitchen is for Vietnamese food lovers seeking to go beyond pho,” on the Los Angeles Times‘ Daily Dish. Bon appetit.
Archive for the 'Chao' Category
If your family is anything like mine, then you’ve probably been dining in the same handful of restaurants for several decades. For as long as I can remember, Pho Hoa has been our go-to joint for Vietnamese beef noodle soup, Minh Ky has been our standby Chinese noodle spot, Lee’s Garden has been our celebratory banquet destination, and so on. We are creatures of habit when it comes to eating outside the home.
While driving to Minh Ky for breakfast one Sunday morning, my mother casually mentioned a hole in the wall Vietnamese restaurant that she had recently noticed and had been curious to try. “They make bun mang vit,” my mom said excitedly. “It’s my favorite.”
Even though the yet-to-be-tested restaurant specialized in my mother’s favorite dish, the comfort of dining in a familiar eatery still appealed to her more. In order to encourage my mama to branch out, I had to strike a deal. If the meal at the new place was terrible, I’d volunteer to foot the bill. However, if the food turned out to be terrific, she’d take The Astronomer and me out. With nothing to lose, my mom agreed to breakfast at Chinese Kitchen/Chi Tu Thanh Nha Hang.
The Vietnamese-run restaurant is actually two establishments in one. Chinese Kitchen churns out classic Chinese-American fare like chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young, while Chi Tu Thanh Nha Hang specializes in Vietnamese noodle soups and porridge. By the way, Chi Tu Thanh is the name of the restaurant’s proprietress and nha hang is the Vietnamese word for “fancy” restaurant.
Chi Tu Thanh Nha Hang also doubles up as a catering service. Throughout our meal, dozens of people came by to pick up trays of freshly fried cha gio and steaming pots of soup to bring home to eat.
The Astronomer, my mom, and I stuck to the Vietnamese menu during our visit. I ordered a bowl of banh canh tom cua ($5), a soup comprised of udon-like noodles in a sweet pork broth with shrimp, crab, and a fish cake. I used to loathe banh canh as a child because the noodles were too slippery and gelatinous, but now that my chopstick skills have improved markedly, it’s become one of my favorite noodle soups. Chi Tu Thanh’s version was quite nice, with its clear yet porky broth and generous amount of noodles. I would’ve liked a pork trotter to gnaw on, as well as more bits of crab.
My mom was mostly pleased with her bun mang vit ($5), vermicelli noodles in a duck-based broth with bamboo shoots and congealed pig’s blood. The noodle soup’s flavors were completely satisfying, but my mother felt the kitchen was a bit skimpy with the meaty bamboo shoots.
The Astronomer ordered a bowl of chao vit ($3.95), duck porridge. Topped with black pepper, scallions, and minced ginger, the porridge was seasoned deftly and comforting in a way that only porridge can be.
The chao vit was served with tender slices of boiled duck and nuoc mam gung (ginger fish sauce). The portion pictured here includes an additional order of duck for the goi vit (duck salad).
In addition to the slices of boiled duck, the goi vit ($5) included a crisp heap of lightly dressed cabbage and banana blossom.
My mom had such a positive experience at Chi Tu Thanh that she’ll be ordering a big ‘ol pot of bun mam this holiday season for us to dig into at home. Oh, how I’ve missed that wildly flavorful soup!
Chinese Kitchen/Chi Tu Thanh Nha Hang Food To Go
6160 University Avenue
San Diego, CA 92115
Asians are a ritualistic bunch.
This past Sunday was the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. The “double fifth” day represents the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The Chinese celebrate with dragon boat festivals, the Koreans have Dano and the Japanese recognize kodomo no hi.
In Vietnam, we celebrated Tết Đoan Ngọ:
Tết Đoan Ngọ (literally: Tết: festival, Đoan: the start / straight / middle / righteousness / just, Ngọ: the seventh animal of the Chinese zodiac- the horse), Tết Đoan Dương (Dương: yang), Tết Trùng Ngũ (Trùng: double, Ngũ: the fifth), Tết Đoan Ngũ, Tết Trùng Nhĩ or Tết Nửa Năm (Nửa Năm: a half of a year) is a festival celebrated at noon on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. This day is the day when the Great Bear star’s tail direct exactly to the south. At this time, the universe brings the greatest amount of yang yi in the entire year. Therefore, creatures and people must become stronger in both their health and their souls to overcome this.
Ba Sau (my grandma’s sister) invited us over to her home to celebrate the holiday with a midday feast. We indulged in sticky rice, barbecued pork, banh hoi, chicken porridge, boiled chicken, bo bia, fried rice and goi.
The two traditional foods of the holiday are banh u and com ruou. Banh u are pyramidal sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. They are oftentimes stuffed with mung beans, but the ones we had at Ba Sau’s were plain, so we dipped them in sugar. The banana leaf essence is the dominant flavor.
Com ruou, which literally translates as “rice wine,” are little balls of fermented rice bathed in wine. My aunt told me that com ruou is eaten early in the day to fight the “worms” in one’s stomach. In addition to being ritualistic, the Vietnamese are also very superstitious! Com ruou is very strong and quite delicious. I think the worms in my stomach were properly extinguished after consuming three balls.
The Astronomer and I are thankful to have Ba Sau in Saigon to introduce us to these wonderful local foods, traditions and customs. She’s the best!
Offal isn’t awful.
One of the aspects that I appreciate most about Vietnamese cuisine is that nothing goes to waste. From bones to meat to blood and guts, each and every part of an animal is put to good culinary use. Cháo lòng turns piggy odds and ends that most butchers would toss out with the garbage into hearty and soothing rice porridge.
Cháo Lòng is one of the rare offerings in Saigon that is served from morning until evening. The dish is hot, satisfying and easy on the pocket at only 6,000 VND a bowl. Street vendors dishing up cháo lòng can be easily spotted with their giant metal vats and glass display cases filled with piles of offal and stacks of golden fried dough (giò cháo quẩy).
The heart of cháo lòng consists of rice softened in a flavorful broth with cubes of congealed blood (huyết) thrown in for good measure. To serve, the porridge and huyết are ladled into a large bowl along with slices of liver, chunks of tubular innards and various forcemeats. Scallions, fresh ground pepper and small pieces of fried dough are then scattered on top. Fresh bean sprouts, lime wedges, ginger and fish sauce are available tableside for diners to season their cháo to taste.
Despite eliciting strong distaste from the majority of Westerners, offal is actually quite mild and surprisingly palatable. The consistency may be a turn off to some, but I completely embrace its subtle chewiness.
Cháo lòng is certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing dish, but its flavors and textures more than make up for its lack of presentation.