Showing posts with label little saigon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label little saigon. Show all posts

Eat Drink Style Ngu Binh, Little Saigon Westminster - Bun Bo Hue the Lonely, Distant Red-headed Relative of Pho

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

When it comes to Vietnamese food, you can bet the first thing people will talk about is pho, a delicate soup noodle dish made from long hours of boiling beef bones, browned onions, fish sauce and various spices. Do not pronounce it like "foe" – all of your wrongdoings in life will be spilled over WikiLeaks and you'll be left to eat Costco samples for the rest of your life. I love pho as much as everyone does and enjoy eating it in whatever mood I'm in, but let's be honest, it's time it got off the stage like Leno. Of the hundreds of Vietnamese soup noodle dishes, it doesn't do much to the senses. There's definitely aroma, flavor and heat, but it is also one big bowl of boring. Zzzzz.

Believe it or not, pho will never go away. It's impossible. It's provided sustenance for Vietnamese people for decades and it fuels poor, starving college kids all over the U.S. It will not suddenly disappear off the face of this planet. As a suggestion for your New Year's resolution, may I suggest you start to veer off and try things like:

Banh Canh Cua - a thick, crab-based noodle soup with various seafood and meats
Bun Moc - a simple vermicelli soup with hand-made pork balls stuffed with wood-ear shrooms
Bun Rieu Oc - a dill & tomato flavored soup with snails or sometimes tofu & fishcake patties
Bun Thang - a soup noodle dish with thinly sliced fried eggs and Vietnamese meatloaf
Hu Tieu Nam Vang - an ode to Cambodian/Trieu Chau soup noodles also with various meats
Mi Quang - yellow rice noodles topped with shrimp, pork, peanuts and a side of broth

I can go on all day long about the various soup noodle dishes. When I was in Vietnam, they were everywhere. Cooked in restaurants, cafes, night markets and street stands. Each of the three main regions in Vietnam offer something delicious.

But the one soup noodle dish that I can never get enough of comes from the Central region of Vietnam known as Huebun bo hue. Literally it means "noodles", "beef" and "from Hue". The soup is made with beef bones, lemongrass stalks, ginger/onions/garlic and the key ingredient, chili oil. The result is a flavorful, fiery bowl of pure attitude. Look at it, it is the exact opposite of pho, it needs to attend anger management classes. My analogy: pho is the good catholic schoolgirl that never talks to boys, bun bo hue is the cigarette smoking, tatted-up bad girl destined to make a salary collecting $1 bills. Yes, raunchy but GOOD.

I'm sent to a place called Ngu Binh in Little Saigon by my friends MK and MT. It was about half-filled at 6 pm and in less than 10 minutes, J & I turned around to see at least 15 people waiting by the door for a table. I had also heard that the chef/owner of the restaurant is the only person with the responsibility of constructing each bowl of bun bo hue – no one else is allowed to. In English, that's called a "noodle Nazi" and its best to be out of the tornado's path. And on weekends, this place does sell out of bun bo hue. But on this day we were lucky.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

In a few minutes, our desired bowl of bun bo hue arrives and it is filled with all sorts of goodies. This is peasant food at its best. You've got slices of tender beef shank, a nice piece of skin-on pork foot, nuggets of Vietnamese meatloaf called cha and pork blood cubes. NO, thank god there is no tai rare steak! At many places I've eaten bun bo hue, the broth sometimes can have too much lemongrass or too much rock sugar. The soup here is delicious and very balanced. The chef leaves you with no choice but to handle the chili oil, and it is awesome. The vermicelli noodles used are thicker than pho, and a common noodle used in Chinese soup noodles – typically in Yunnan and Southern China.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

Here's the Google Earth view of the bun bo hue soup noodles. Amazing technology by Google. How funny would it be if you can zoom in on a restaurant. As you can see, there are a lot of things going on and its what makes this dish to me, quite a unique one.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

But what I love most about Vietnamese food is the customizing that you're encouraged to do. How many of you like to alter the color of your pho from a boring color to something orange from Sriracha sauce or dark brown from the Hoisin sauce? Or do you like to overflood the bowl with huge handfuls of bean sprouts? With bun bo hue, the party doesn't stop. Here's a tip for you to spot out an authentic bun bo hue restaurant. If you are served purple cabbage versus banana blossoms pictured above, you aren't getting the real deal. Banana blossoms don't have a strong taste but texture-wise, they add a nice touch to the soup noodles. I recommend adding a ton of torn mint to this dish – it takes it to another level.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

Pork blood cubes, aka, Chinese Chocolate. Love it or hate it, but don't dismiss the whole dish because of it. Made from congealed pork blood, this add another interesting texture that I really enjoy. The Chinese, Thai, Filipinos and Koreans also use this quite a lot in their cooking. Instead of freaking out, you can simply take it out. It's that easy.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

Another thing that separates this place from other bun bo hue restaurants is in the way they serve the Vietnamese meatloaf known as cha. I've noticed that the Chinese/Trieu Chau-run Vietnamese restaurants will use thin slices cut from a larger loaf – usually 3-4 slices. Cheap! 100% Vietnamese-run restaurants will usually offer nuggets or "logs" of cha. What in the world did I just mean by that? There are Chinese EVERYWHERE. The ones that have migrated to Vietnam to work are usually of Trieu Chau (Chiu Chow) descent. Although they do speak Vietnamese, the are in fact, more in touch with the Chinese side. If you've been to Hanoi, you can definitely notice Chinese influence since it borders China. When I had it at the famed lunch lady Bourdain visited in Saigon, she offered HUGE pieces of cha in her bowl of bun bo hue. Her bun bo hue was definitely on the punchy, lemon-grass heavy side as opposed to Ngu Binh's. Anyway, the cha here is the best I have eaten in the U.S. I tried to buy some to go but I got denied because they wouldn't have enough to complete their orders.

Ngu Binh, Westminster Little Saigon

At a Hue restaurant, you will hardly find egg rolls. But that's okay. Instead, you will see a lot of delicious rice-flour based dishes such as this, banh beo, steamed rice cakes topped with ground shrimp, fried shallots, scallions and my favorite, fried pork skins (chicharrones). Here at Ngu Binh, they certainly don't skimp on the toppings but the rice cake itself is a bit too thick. I actually prefer the thinner, translucent ones found at Quan Hy and Quan Hop.

Ngu Binh BBH7

Thanks again to MK and MT for the suggestion. A lot of versions I've tried either have too much MSG, too much sugar, too much fish sauce or simply lose their flavor at first sip. Ngu Binh is easily my favorite bun bo hue at the moment. Yet another stop in the wonderful Vietnamese food court known as Little Saigon.

Here are some other bun bo hue places I've tried/heard about:

Bun Bo Hue So 1, Westminster, CA
I used to frequent this place but the taste went down over the years. Very punchy lemongrass flavor. I like the mi quang here though.

My Linh's Bun Bo Hue, Garden Grove, CA
A friend told me about this place but I have yet to try it.

Pho Cong Ly Saigon Deli Restaurant, Garden Grove, CA
Another place I hear a lot about. Anyone try?

Brodard, Garden Grove, CA
The mecca for charbroiled pork rolls (nem nuong) offers a plethora of Hue food and is always packed. I've had several dishes here and they all seem average to me, including the bun bo hue.

Kim Hoa Hue, South El Monte, CA
A very balanced bun bo hue is offered here in what I refer to as Mini Saigon – all on Garvey Avenue. I love ordering the banana-wrapped goodies like nem chua, aka Vietnamese Roulette due to its "raw-but-cooked" look and cha hue. If you don't want to drive far, this will do you just fine.

Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa, Rosemead, CA
Run by a very nice Chinese/Trieu Chau (see I told you they exist!) family for a few years, they offer good nem nuong rolls but unfortunately I think the bun bo hue itself can use a little work. All I remember from is being very thirsty from the MSG used.

Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, Rosemead, CA
This place has been here since the 90s, maybe even earlier, and located next to In & Out and Rosemead High School. Very punchy, lemongrass flavor. Sometimes a bit heavy on MSG. I recommend their nem nuong platter for an appetizer.

Mien Trung, Rosemead, CA
Run by a nice family, they offer various Hue dishes. It's not bad but there's a quick flavor fallout. I'd give their other dishes a try though. I would rather continue driving east to Kim Hoa Hue in Mini Saigon.

Nha Trang, San Gabriel, CA
This is a new spot run by a Chinese/Trieu Chau (ahem!) lady. She runs out of her Hue-style food pretty much on the weekends so you'll have to go here earlier in the day. Unfortunately, I came on a day they were sold out.

M Delivery, San Gabriel, CA
I had high hopes in this place that now takes over the old Banh Mi shop next to Popeye's. The place was screaming bun bo hue but unfortunately, it was less than average and strong on MSG. They do a lot of take-out/catering orders here.

Thanks for reading. Give bun bo hue a chance and hopefully you'll understand why I crave it so often.

Eat Drink Style Tay Ho Banh Cuon - Rosemead, CA

Yes... banh cuon, the Vietnamese cousin of the Chinese steamed rice noodles found in dim sum. Similar in noodle texture, banh cuon is made with rice flour, tapioca flour, water and oil and traditionally filled with ground pork, fried shallots and wood ear mushrooms. It is garnished with cilantro, sliced cucumbers, even more fried shallots, slices of pork loaf (cha lua) and nuoc cham (fish sauce dip). It is basically a crepe.

This is a dish I learned to love growing up. Back in the 80s, my dad would take his along on his frequent visits to Chinatown and stop by this one roach coach on the corner of Spring & Alpine to pick up banh cuon. I call them the Banh Mi Boys because its run by two brothers - nice guys. The roach coach is STILL there to this day and I'll find myself going there at least once a week to pick up the deluxe banh mi for $2.25 (not the best, but better than dropping $6 at places like Le Saigon in West LA) and banh cuon. The banh cuon comes in a pack of 10 with fish sauce for $2. I eat TWO of them and a pork skewer (nem nuong). Overall, if you check out this roach coach, don't expect much - it's basic Vietnamese fare. Out on the westside, I can't find sh*t. Banh cuon is good because it's so light and flavorful, as with the majority of vietnamese food.

Banh cuon is a dish you can easily find in any Vietnamese restaurant, but there is one that specifically focuses on it: Tay Ho. After J told me about this place, I salivated like one of Pavlov's dogs . I tried out the one in Rosemead.

Jug O' Juice
I like gin and tonic, and I like my fish sauce tonic. Made with fish sauce, Sriricha chili garlic sauce, lemons, sugar and water... this is the ingredient that makes Vietnamese food so tasty. I love how Tay Ho proudly displays their sauce. It's the 40 oz. of fish sauce. Nice.

Spring Rolls (Cha Gio)
Average. It was edible, but you just have to have that delicious crunch from fresh rice paper. I've been spoiled by Golden Deli/Saigon Flavor/Vietnam House! Here's my posting on cha gio.

Steamed Rice Cakes with Ground Shrimp, Mung Bean & Pork Loaf (Banh Beo)
Banh beo is a steamed rice cake. It's a bit starchier and Tay Ho's version is a bit too thick. My favorite banh beo comes from Quan Hy in Westminster where they present the rice cakes in individual dishes so that nothing sticks to the plate. I regretted ordering this because everything was just powdery and starchy. The mung bean and ground shrimp was intensely dry. Not even the 40 oz. fish tonic could help.

Steamed Rice Noodles with Fried Shrimp Paste
Now this was the best dish out of the whole meal. I love shrimp paste - so sweet and tasty. I borrowed some of the pork loaf slices from the previous dish since we couldn't finish it. The banh cuon was cooked nicely - I devoured this up in minutes.

Vietnamese Pork Vermicelli in Beef Soup (Bun Bo Hue)
This is the next favorite noodle dish after pho in vietnamese restaurants. This comes from the Hue district and is actually more flavorful than pho. The soup is made with beef but served with a pork hock. The soup is strong in lemongrass flavor and is delicious. Unfortunately, Tay Ho's version was lacking in flavor. Does anyone have any recommendations for Bun Bo Hue in LA and OC? I love the one from Quan Hy as well.

Fried Pork Chop with Steamed Egg Cake on Rice (Com Tam Suon Nuong)
Pork chop bland. Egg cake good. And that concludes my extensive review on this dish.

Overall, Tay Ho was ok. I think I'm better off trying the Westminster one. The best meal here is probably the Jug O' Juice. FYI, Tay Ho is owned by the West Lake Food Corporation. You can find products like beef balls, pork balls, fish cake, pork loaves and yes, fish sauce, in most asian markets. The fish sauce may very well be the key buy. Try Tay Ho out for yourself. It could've been an off day for me.

Tay Ho Banh Cuon
1039 E Valley Blvd Ste B103
San Gabriel, CA, 91776
(626) 280-5207