Archive for the 'Hen' Category

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.”

Ngự Viên – Ho Chi Minh City

Ngự Viên—take three.

Slowly, but surely, we’re gonna eat our way through Ngự Viên’s extensive, Hue-inspired menu. Read about our first account here and our second one here.

Cathy’s mom was in town a few weeks back for the Tet holiday and desired traditional Vietnamese rice dishes for lunch. After little debate, Zach, The Astronomer and I decided that Ngự Viên would be the perfect place to satisfy her craving.

We ordered two of our standbys (ca hu kho and goi mit) and tried four new dishes—clockwise from top left: hen xao (54,000 VND), chao tom (30,000 VND each), bo xoi xao toi (21,000 VND), and canh chua tien (48,000 VND).

Like all standbys ought to be, the ca kho and goi mit were superb. By the way, the best way to distinguish a good ca kho from a great one is the uncontrollable desire to sop up every last bit of caramelized goodness with rice once the fish has disappeared. Mmm, boy!

Of the new dishes, the canh chua tien was a true standout. While the most common version of canh chua (sour soup) is mildly tangy and heavy on pineapples, this version was spicy and contained thin slices of rough bamboo shoots. The soup’s fiery hotness came courtesy of some strong chili powder that really hit the back of my throat.

The hen xao—small clams sauteed with glass noodles and herbs—were served with sesame rice crackers as an appetizer. Perhaps a little too similar to goi mit to be eaten side-by-side, the hen xao was tasty nevertheless.

The chao tom—grilled shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane—took a good 45 minutes to arrive because Ngự Viên makes them from scratch. Fair enough, but our waiter insisted on coursing the meal with the slowpoke dish second. As a result, we spent over half an hour staring at an empty table after polishing off our appetizers. Timing aside, the chao tom were definitely good. However, at 30,000 each, they were not worth the price or wait.

Cathy desired some greenery and ordered the bo xoi xao toi. None of us knew what bo xoi was and our waiter could not provide any insight. The leafy greens tasted like a cross between morning glory, spinach, and bok choy and were slightly bitter. Sauteed in copious cloves of garlic and oil, the mysterious bo xoi served its purpose well.

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.

Cơm Hến: Second Best Thing to Come Out of Huế

IMG_4395

When I found out The Gastronomer and I were going to be traveling to Da Nang for work, I felt it essential that we stop by Hue as well. After all, even though its population might be 1/20 of HCMC’s, everyone knows that Hue is the food capital of Vietnam. The imperial city’s cuisine dominates the restaurant scene here in Saigon: bun bo, banh beo, banh nam, … the list goes on and on. I couldn’t wait to taste the food at the source. We set aside two nights for the trip—plenty of time for a lot of deliciousness.

Upon arriving in Hue, both of us were a bit taken aback. The place is a tourist hot spot, worse than anywhere else we’ve been in Vietnam. As a result of all the Caucasians wandering around, the locals have become a bit obnoxious; cyclo drivers pester you incessantly as you walk down the street, food prices are dramatically higher for foreigners, and very few vendors seem to approach conversations with genuine good will and a smile. Furthermore, the southern part of town (where most of the hotels are) is full of “tourist-friendly” restaurants offering hamburgers, spaghetti, and perhaps a bit of Vietnamese food for show. As The Gastronomer and I strolled along the river looking for lunch, genuine Hue cuisine was nowhere to be found.

We walked further and further from our hotel, slowly becoming hungrier and a bit depressed by the state of things. Fortunately, after about twenty minutes we unexpectedly ran into a man wearing an East meets West hat. Small world. As it turned out, he didn’t actually work for our organization, but rather for a construction company we had hired to build a hospital. Nevertheless, he had some excellent food advice. He pointed us to a street a few blocks away specializing in com hen, a spicy rice dish topped with little clams, peanuts, sesame seeds, crispy noodles, basil, pig’s skin, and a plethora of greens. A delicious hot clam broth is served on the side for sipping. We eagerly ducked into the first restaurant we saw at 28 Truong Dinh (Phone: 054825317).

IMG_4395

IMG_4400 IMG_4402

We had failed to notice before ordering that our chosen establishment was empty while the nearly identical place across the street was relatively packed. However, we needn’t have worried. It was rather late for lunch, and as we discovered in the coming days, both places were extremely popular with the locals. Learning from our one previous experience with com hen (at Nha Hang Mon Hue in Saigon), The Gastronomer asked for the hot chili paste to be left out. The result was superb. It’s hard to describe why I liked the com hen so much: it didn’t taste strongly of clams, and neither nuoc mam nor soy sauce were featured, but the subtle flavors meshed perfectly with the texture of the rice to create an extremely satisfying treat. At only 5,000 dong for a bowl, it was also quite a deal.

We finished our meal with an order of banh nam. It was good, but nothing we couldn’t have gotten in Saigon. As it turned out, despite all my anticipation, com hen was only dish that really amazed me in Hue. I blame this primarily on the fact that most other Hue dishes have made their way to Saigon without losing their essential characteristics, but for some reason good com hen is hard to find.

IMG_4431

IMG_4437 IMG_4436

The next morning we biked around the city and explored the citadel. Even with rapid transportation at our disposal and all the avenues in Hue to choose from, we couldn’t resist returning to the same street for some more hen. This time we went to the place across the street at 7 Truong Dinh (Phone: 833043) and ordered bun hen—a similar dish with vermicelli noodles instead of rice. The owner instructed that we refrain from pouring the clam broth on the noodles. I gave this a try, but felt it was an inferior way to eat hen dishes. Even though we requested no chilis, the bun hen was still a bit spicy, and I felt that this overwhelmed the other flavors and diminished the experience somewhat. However, it was still a treat.

We decided we’d better give this woman a fair shake by trying her com hen as well. To complete the trifecta, we also ordered a bowl of the third form of hen: chao (porridge). The com hen was amazing—one of the owners asked if it was better than the one across the street (there was definitely a bit of a rivalry), and I had to honestly tell her that I couldn’t decide. As for the chao hen, it was an interesting dish in its own right—quite different from the other two. I’m rarely in the mood for porridge, especially in the oppressive Hue heat, but I’m glad we tried it. Bun hen and com hen are both special, but in the final analysis I think the texture of rice better suits the dish.

On our third and final day in Hue, we returned to our original hen restaurant yet again. It was just irresistible. I’m not sure how many days in a row I would have to eat com hen before I got bored, but it’d be a while.

IMG_4521

IMG_4525 IMG_4525

A few days after we returned to Saigon, I noticed a Hue restaurant advertising com hen on our way to work. I was ecstatic. On the first available opportunity, we walked over to 26 CMT8 (Phone: 9304132) to give it a try. Unfortunately, the food didn’t measure up. While Hue’s com hen was subtle, this one was just bland. I was disappointed, but in a way I’m kind of glad that there’s a regional dish that Saigon’s chefs haven’t mastered. It will give visitors to Hue something to look forward to.

Continue reading ‘Cơm Hến: Second Best Thing to Come Out of Huế’

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...