Even with an endless parade of new restaurant openings in Los Angeles, my current obsession is an unassuming eight-year-old Vietnamese spot in El Monte. My friend Thien introduced me to Kim Hoa Hue Restaurant a few weeks ago, and I’ve already been back three times since. This place is really something dac biet.
Whereas most Vietnamese restaurants in town serve a menu of the country’s greatest hits, like pho, bun, and the like, Kim Hoa Hue specializes in Central Vietnamese fare, specifically the cuisine from Hue. As Vietnam’s former imperial capital, Hue is renowned for its sophisticated cuisine, developed by the cooks of the royal court.
On each of my visits here, my dining companions and I feasted like kings. Never missing from our spread was the Hue Combo ($6.25), a sample platter of delicate delights: banh beo (steamed rice cakes topped with shrimp and cracklins), banh nam (rice cakes embedded with shrimp and steamed in banana leaves), banh bot loc (shrimp and pork dumplings), cha (steamed pork forcemeat), and banh uot tom chay (rice sheets stuffed with minced shrimp).
While my mother and grandmother were particularly fond of the banh beo during our lunch, it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite—winners all around, I say.
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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.
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.
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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The Astronomer’s 27th birthday was celebrated over Vietnamese food and lots of it. There was grilled pork a plenty at home and satisfying noodle soups in San Gabriel.
Jonathan Gold’s review of Nha Trang brought us to this itty-bitty shop off of Valley Boulevard. In his write up, Mr. Gold warned that a long wait was to be expected and that the kitchen might run out of the more popular dishes. The gods of good eating must have been smiling down on us this afternoon because we were seated after a few short minutes and everything on the menu was still available. Woo hoo!
One of my pet peeves with Vietnamese restaurants in America is that their menus are typically overwhelming, advertising everything from broken rice to bánh mì. Nha Trang’s menu was refreshingly edited, serving only eight dishes. Granted, the offerings were still all over the place in terms of regions, but the effort to pare down the menu was noted and appreciated.
After placing our orders, a sizable plate of herbs, beansprouts, chilies, and limes was brought to the table.
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If The Astronomer and I were to combine our culinary heritages, we might come up with dishes like toasted ravioli filled with lemongrass pork and collard greens braised in fish sauce. Sounds intriguing and even a little tempting, wouldn’t you say? This sort of whimsical marrying of cuisines is exactly what the husband and wife team of Jose Sarinana and Thien Ho are doing at Xoia Vietnamese Eats in Echo Park.
Opened last summer, Xoia serves a mostly Vietnamese menu with a handful of inspired dishes that bring together elements from both Vietnamese and Mexican cuisine. The cultures collide most successfully under the “Taco” section of the menu. I really enjoyed the anise and cinnamon spiced phở tacos that I sampled at the restaurant’s soft opening and couldn’t wait to try another mash-up during my subsequent lunchtime visit.
My easygoing dining mate Nastassia was game for just about anything, so I ordered the mì quảng-inspired tacos ($5.75). The three tacos were served on warm corn tortillas with fresh cilantro, diced red onions, and a side of house-made red salsa. The tender pork was richly spiced with paprika and shallots; I added a squiggle of Sriracha for good measure.
The tacos’ flavors were brighter and more robust than a bowl of mì quảng. Concentrating the spices and upping the oomph allowed the protein to work terrifically as a taco filling. Next time, I’m going to sample the chicken curry tacos.
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