Showing posts with label vietnamese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vietnamese. 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 Pho Garden, San Francisco - Man vs. Pho: An Actual Survivor of the World's Largest Bowl of Pho

Man vs. Pho
Today, I received an email from a reader by the initials of HB. She had read my posting on Pho Garden up in San Francisco, the proud host of the pho challenge. If you can eat this mammoth bowl of pho, your $22 bowl of pho is FREE. I did not realize just how big this bowl of pho was until HB emailed me these photos. Just look at it. Do the servers need a weightlifting belt just to haul this to the table? I think I see the hooves and horns of the cow in that bowl as well. Worth it?! Not in my opinion. But for an eating-challenger like this gentleman, it's worth the bragging rights and a well-deserved virtual high-five from me. Here's what HB wrote:

"I was witness to my boyfriend Brian completing the Pho Garden challenge last weekend. I originally saw your post with Pho Garden pics and of course had to send him the link since we are pho freaks and he recently discovered the world of eating challenges. He emailed the photos around and issued a challenge to his friends. 2 months later 3 challengers sat down to the huge bowls of boiling pho. Holy cow you should have seen the mixed emotions these guys went through in the span of 60 minutes while eating- fear, happiness, relief, denial, nausea, disgust. My boyfriend Brian was the only one to finish in 47 minutes and I have to admit that I've never been so proud! haha! So thanks for the idea and now this triumph will live on forever for us. Oh yeah, I wanted to mention that Brian said that initially he thought the pho was good, but that he seemed to be slowly blacking out while he ate and cannot remember the taste of a single piece of meat even though he ate 2 pounds. Pretty funny, right? Has this ever happened to you?"

Fear, happiness, relief, denial, nausea, disgust? Talk about an emotional meal. And no I have never had a euphoric, near-death experience from eating. Well maybe the f'd up shrimp I ate in Brazil that pained me for 3 days and earned me a 60-minute morphine ride at the hospital.

If you look carefully, the bottom of the bowl says "You did it!!!" Good thing it didn't say something like...

"Congrats, this was just the appetizer."
"Good job, the hospital is a few blocks down."

Thanks again to HB for the email and congrats to Brian.

Eat Drink Style Buu Dien, Chinatown - Keeping It (Bun) Rieu

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

Chinatown, Los Angeles. A one square mile area that some call their weekly lunch spot or see as purely a wasteland of elderly people, junk shops and wandering tourists. For those that have ventured and tasted SGV, it is futile to search for better food in Chinatown. Understandably it’s a spot for people that don't want to make the drive out to the San Gabriel Valley, where the real food is. You won’t find lip-stinging Hunan food. You’ll never kiss a juicy pork dumpling. Nor will you slurp a solid bowl of beef noodle soup. It doesn’t exist in Chinatown because it’s not what the people want. You’ll most likely find all of your food drenched with sweet n’ sour sauce and receiving your bill with a fortune cookie on top. Sadly, a lot of people consider the food to be authentic “Chinese” food. If that was Chinese food, I’d rather go vegetarian. And what a lot of people don't know about Los Angeles’s Chinatown is that it's not really comprised of Chinese. In actuality, most of the Chinese food that you've eaten in Chinatown is Cantonese Chinese food, similar to Hong Kong-style Chinese food... but made for non-Chinese. Got it?

Of course the majority of the establishments are Chinese restaurants and various businesses, but it would be unfair if we did not recognize the efforts of the ethnic Chinese minorities that really do shape the character of Chinatown. But in the last decade, there has been an influx of Mainland Chinese, Chiu Chow Chinese, Cambodian Chinese and Vietnamese Chinese. A lot of them operating small noodle shops, jewelry stores and general eateries. You just read the word “Chinese” how many times in that last sentence, but there is a difference. And believe it or not, not all Asians look or eat the same. One thing in common with those ethnic minority groups are noodles. You probably won't find me in a joint like Empress Pavilion or one of those television-network Chinese restaurants like CBS/ABC. What the hell is that about anyway? I avoid those entirely. But you will find me in the noodle shops.

It's hard to find authenticity in Chinatown, I know because it seems like everything is offering the same food. But if you look really hard, you'll find some hidden gems. When it comes to noodles, the ethnic Chinese minorities reign the 1 square mile kingdom. Hong Kong wontons don’t exist here like you would think, not even in SGV. Places like New Kamara and Mien Nghia offer decent bowls of soup noodles for under $7, guaranteed to make your belly shiny. There are a few other Cambodian Chinese places that are so so, and you would surely find better stuff in Long Beach for sure.

For me, I think the Vietnamese options are on the light. Outside of Pho 87 on Broadway, I haven't found anything worth stopping for. All of the other pho restaurants I've been to are below the batting average. There is also Leena's truck, Nam Thai, on Spring/Alpine which offers a few Vietnamese staples such as banh mi, banh cuon and bun thit nuong, with the banh cuon being purchased from a factory daily. But her truck has been in operation since the lates 80s and runs independently from the Los Angeles food truck scene.

Amidst the salad bowl of ethnic cuisines, tourist traps and overpriced food, I’ve recently parted through the brush and bullshit and fell upon Buu Dien, an earnest, mom & pop, sandwich shop in a lonely stuccoed strip mall. Jonathan Gold recently heralded this place as one of the best banh mi shops in Los Angeles. And they are good. But he may or may not have overlooked something that I find to be quite delicious and what Buu Dien should be recognized for. I’ve been here a few times over the year to pick up sandwiches and one day I noticed a sheet of paper by the entrance: pho, chicken curry and bun rieu. For $4 each. Can’t be good, too cheap, right? You’ve had the first two, but may I suggest you meet bun rieu? A dish that consists of a crab and tomato broth with vermicelli noodles and various toppings. This originates from North Vietnam and can be topped with snails, tofu or even dill fishcakes, the way I had it when I was in Vietnam.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

So on a hazy morning, I walked in to Buu Dien. The lights were shut off and the room was illuminated solely by the blue overcast light from outside. There was an old TV blaring out headlines in Vietnamese and I could hear the quiet gurgling from the coffee maker nearby. A heated display case offered you its delicacies – cured pork balls, fried pork patties and banana-leaf wrapped goodies. Some signage on the wall colored in Vietnamese/French-like typography advertised the available drinks. A clock shaped into the country of Vietnam ticked away. There was another display case that stored various Vietnamese drinks, patés and Vietnamese meatloaf (cha lua). On top, there were packages of instant noodle bowls – I wondered who actually bought these. There were stools scattered around, like they had walked away from tables on their own. The tiles on the floor were slightly cracked and freshly mopped. All that was really missing were some red and blue plastic stools and napkins tossed all over the ground. This feels like Vietnam, and I already liked what was going on in here. This was your typical Vietnamese food establishment selling various culinary knick-knacks.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

And then an older man with glasses popped up from behind the counter and said hello. “Hi, how can I help you?” How about cooking me something delicious, I thought to myself. I ordered bun rieu and he smiled with surprise. There was another gentleman slurping down a bowl of bun rieu like he was in his happy little world. I took a seat and waited for my bun rieu.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

Cha Chien/Hue
I sometimes think the Vietnamese can start their own fast-food like corporation by packing one of these patties in between some lettuce and bread, and sell it in some happy meal like form because this stuff is great. It's used in banh mi, in bun rieu and possibly as informal wedding dowry.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

Nem Nuong
These are Vietnamese style meatballs that are cured and then either grilled or deep fried. Used mainly in sandwiches or eaten like a meatsicle.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

Bun Rieu
My attention was averted when I heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Mr. Pham's slippers slid across that tiling, holding a tray full with everything I needed to get my meal on. There was the bowl of noodles gently breathing heat, a plate of lettuce, herbs and lemon and hot sauce. He placed everything on my tiny table and said "enjoy".

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

But before he could leave, I asked him about the missing component... shrimp paste (mam ruoc). He again looked at me like I was new to this delicious dish. I told him I can't eat it without my shrimp sauce. Most people have a love/hate relationship with this pungent, if that's even the right word, sauce made of ground fermented shrimp. Although we had the Lao version of this growing up, shrimp paste never failed in triggering a response in the form of a plugged nose, "eeeewwww" and a quick sprint for the hills. But I love it and have grown to love it the more I use it. Like it's good for my health. I cracked open the jar and it was almost done with. There was nothing but a plastic spoon cut off at the end to fit within the jar. I say you skip this part if you aren't ready to dip your own chopsticks or use the spoon provided to dig up that purple paste of pungency. But if you do, the addition of this sauce with some hot chili, lemon and herbs form yet another yin-yang relationship within Vietnamese food.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

There are many versions of bun rieu out there, the crab paste and snail ones being the most popular that I've seen. Here at Buu Dien, Mr. Pham's wife, Hen, does her with a huge piece of crab paste. Her mudball-like sculpture of crab, shrimp and pork is nothing short of delicious. As the crab paste sits in the soup, it soaks up the broth like a sponge – with every bite, more tasty and juicy than the other. I love this.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

Don't eat this naked. You must eat it with bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs. Squeeze of lemon.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

I learned that Mrs. Pham indeed makes all of her meat delicacies. This cha chien was delicious. It's no wonder her banh mi sandwiches are tasty as well. You throw this into any Subway sandwich and you'll finally have some flavor in your food.

Buu Dien, Chinatown Los Angeles - Bun Rieu

If I had not stopped here for banh mi sandwiches, I would not have found this. Finally a break from my usual soup noodles at New Kamara. And for $4, this only makes the meal that more special. It wasn't the best I've eaten, but still very good. I love Vien Dong in Little Saigon, for its dill fish cake patties and snails in their bun rieu, but this to me feels more home-cooked and reminiscent of the many soup noodles I ate on a red stool in Vietnam. All that was missing was some balled-up napkins on the floor, the constant sounds of motorcycle motors and honking and the sweat-inducing humidity. Thanks for reading.

Eat Drink Style Banh Cuon - Vietnamese Rolled Rice Crepes

Banh Cuon - Vietnamese Rolled Rice Crepes

When I was commuting for the nearly 2 years to work in the Marina area, I made a point to stop over Chinatown for the Phu Huong roach coach (Alpine & Spring), a standard catering truck run by three very nice siblings – two brothers and a sister. They offered goodies such as Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi), charbroiled pork noodles (bun thit nuong), dried shrimp steamed rice cakes (banh beo), egg rolls (cha gio), charbroiled cured pork meatballs (nem nuong) and my favorite, fried Vietnamese sausage (cha chien). Though not the best representation of Vietnamese food, I loved the concept of one of my favorite foods served from a truck – just like tacos and Kogi BBQ. I know sooner or later, someone will be taking it back to Vietnam's true roots by setting up tiny plastic chairs and wooden tables and serving piping hot pho right out of a roach coach. What a beautiful thing.

I had come here so often that I had the guy's number on my phone. If I wanted a banh mi, I would simply call him 10 minutes before and do a drive by transaction. "Extra Maggi please, com ung!" But what I enjoyed most out of here was something my father first introduced banh cuon to me back in the late 80s, when the same truck was owned by another generation of Vietnamese people. I gladly chose this over a gross Happy Meal.

I had also come here so often that I knew that the purveyor of the banh cuon was always late or super lazy. Sometimes they'd be there at 8:45 am. Sometimes 9:45 am. Sometimes, not at all. This inconsistency drove me nuts as it STILL continues after 6 years. You would think this manufacturer gets the idea by now. NOPE. It was time to make it at home.

The recipes are adapted from Andrea Nguyen's Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, a book I really enjoy reading. Nguyen's recipe calls for prepartion in a skillet or pan. The best way to have these is through steaming, but not everyone has that equipment or the BTU's to do this. Watch it being made.



Banh Cuon - Vietnamese Rolled Rice Crepes

(1) Put the dried wood ear mushrooms in a bowl of warm water. If you can find fresh mushrooms, then avoid this process of reconstituting the dried version. Should take under 7 minutes. Dry and mince it up. Same with shallots. If you like garlic, feel free to add a clove.

(2) Sauté the shallots for a minute or two, then add ground pork with a little S&P. Add fish sauce to taste and sugar to balance out the salinity. This should take no longer than 5 mins. You don't want to overcook this as you will be letting it sit out to rest.

(3) Make a well in a bowl with all the flour and starches. Pour the water into the well slowly, using your other hand to slowly mix in the flour starting from the center, then outwards. You should get a mixture that is watery – it should not be goopy like pancake batter.

(4) In order to make this less frustrating, have a separate chopping board glazed lightly with oil on it ready. This is a lot of work as it took me at least 8 crepes to get it somewhat 'right'. Add a little oil into your pan on low-medium heat, and add about 2 tbsp. of the batter. Slowly swirl the batter around in a circle so that all of the mixture is being cooked. When it stops moving around in the pan, they are being cooked. Then cover the pan with a lid and let it steam for about 1-2 mins. You know you're ready when you can peel the edges of the crepe off, and you don't want to overfry this – it's supposed to be smooth in texture and resemble something steamed. Here's a trick to make your life a little easier. Using the end of a wooden spatula, bang the sides of the pot from the outside and see if the crepe shifts easily. This method prevents any tearing that may happen from using your fingers to grab the crepe.

(5) This is the hardest part. If you watched the video, you saw the lady geniusly use chopsticks to hoist the crepe over to a cutting board. Unfortunately, we are not in Vietnam. If you flip the pot over directly, you may not get a clean fall. You kind of have to come in at an angle, like from 3pm to 7-8pm. Now you'll know why it took me a good 8 times.

(6) This is the easy part. Refer to my egg roll diagram. It's pretty much the same, only the crepe is more delicate. When you do the main rolling, any extraneous parts, you can simply cut off or tuck underneath the crepe for aesthetics. The 'belly' of the crepe should be exposed, not the wrinkly 80 year old grandma skin.

(7) Serve with dipping sauce, boiled/steamed bean sprouts, fresh cilantro and fried shallots.

For this recipe, I found myself adding a little more water to dilute the batter as I tasted too much flour/starch. Otherwise, the recipe is very basic and can be done with patience. No holes in the kitchen walls this time. It tastes good but still doesn't beat the original steamed version.

***Note: The Phu Huong truck is now owned by new people, but they are actually offering more store, including Chiu Chow food like Fried Turnip Cakes with Eggs. Good when fresh, not under saran-wrap.

Thanks for reading.

Eat Drink Style Pho Ga - Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup Recipe

Pho Ga Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

I think some of the most difficult dilemmas in my life take place in a Vietnamese restaurant. Why does everything on the menu have to be so freaking tasty. I have tried a lot of things, but always stick to the standard pho. Just when I tell the server that I want something tasty like charbroiled pork over noodles (bun thit nuong), I end up retracting my order and getting the eye from the server. I'm just not able to shy away from it, like a needy little kid. And like most cooks with a passion for noodles, I've attempted to make my own beef pho for pride and merit. $40 and 6-8 hours later, I finally made my first soup. It tasted fine, but there was something missing, as there always seems to be with home-cooked food. Is it the boatload of MSG that goes into it? Is it the pair of chopsticks and soup spoon that need a pre-rinse with tea? Maybe the server's thumb that always seems to penetrate the scalding hot soup? Whether or not any of these factors actually affect the taste of a soup, it's just not the same. After that last time, I decided it would be less of a headache if I just coughed up a whopping $5.25 for a solid bowl of pho at Pho Filet in South El Monte or Pho Thanh Lich in Little Saigon – two places that I love at the moment.

But all of a sudden, I missed making soup from scratch. Something fast and something cheap. Something that doesn't hog up all the space in my Le Creuset. And Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (pho ga) comes to mind. How expensive was it to make 6-8 bowls? $10, if you already have the spices! Everyone has found their ideal beef pho, as the best ones seem to be very consistent. The slightest decrease in the amount of MSG and spices used can trigger off the food snobbiness. But with pho ga, as I've learned, there really isn't a standard, consistent taste – it's comfort food . With that in mind, you'll be happy to know that pho ga is not difficult to cook and you're free to get creative with it.

Pho Ga Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

There is nothing more boring than chicken breast – dark meat for president. Instead of using chicken breast, I bought leg meat because it has more flavor. If you have to have breast meat, cut that thing in half, cross-section style – you'll be a much happier eater. Let's do this.

Shower Time
(1) Place all the chicken bones in a large pot filled with cold water. Bring to a boil, and let it roll vigorously for 10 minutes to really force out the impurities. Dump bones out into sink and make sure you rinse all the chicken bones. Set aside.

Get Toasty
(2) If you skip this next step, you're missing the whole point of Vietnamese noodle soup. If you want your pho to compete with places on the Westside and Chinatown, then don't toast your spices – because they seriously can't seem to do things right. For this recipe, I used the following spice measurement, add more as needed:

10-12 star anise
2-2.5 tbsp. coriander seeds
1 tbsp. fennel seeds
1 whole cinnamon stick
8-10 cloves

This will yield a very strong anise and clove aroma. So cut down to half or completely omit ingredients if you're not fond of those flavors – I love it. Toast these in a dry pan on low heat for 2-3 minutes, careful not to burn the spices. When the aroma is apparent, turn off the heat and remove the spices from the pan. Tie up the spices in some cheesecloth and string.

Campfire Time
(3) You'll be toasting the ginger and onions now, to wake up the flavors. Over the stove burner, turn it on high. Using tongs, set the onions and ginger on the burners. For the onions, I usually peel away the outer skin because I really want to punish those onions and make them sweat. Same applies to the ginger. You don't have to evenly char them, 60-75% is fine. Over cold water, remove any of the blackened parts.

Hot Tub
(4) Add the bones, spices, onions, ginger, whole bulb of garlic (cross-sectioned to reveal the cloves of garlic) into the pot and fill it up with cold water. Bring to a boil and add some fish sauce to taste. The fish sauce is used to flavor the soup, not be the sole source of salinity. You should have a delicate hint of fish sauce. Once you've brought it to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer. Add a 1"-1.5" piece of rock sugar. This is crucial in giving pho that gentle sweetness. Regular sugar would be too harsh.

Dinner Time
(5) After about 2 hours, you should test out your soup once more to dot the i's and cross the t's. After simmering for so long, you may need to add more water incase it becomes salty. Scoop out any impurities and get your scallions, green onions, white onions and herbs ready. Banh pho noodles are typically used (I like the Kim Tar brand but this one is good as well.) and I've had versions with thicker rice noodles used in hu tieu. To cook the noodles, bring some water to a boil and drop the noodles in for no more than FIVE SECONDS for al dente noodles. Serve with piping hot soup and a headband if you get worked up like I do when I eat noodles.


Pho Ga Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

Jeni and I were really happy that this turned out well. It was very simple and to tell you the truth, I don't think you can really F this up. What I might do differently is reduce the amount of cloves – too strong. And I may actually use chicken breast versus leg meat because you need to have some texture – my leg meat was tasty, but obliterated from the simmering of course. And also, pho ga is best eaten the day you make it. The refridgeration process sucks the life out of the herbs. I left the spice bag in the soup and that made the clove aroma even stronger. Bleh. Enjoy and thanks for reading.

Eat Drink Style The Echo Park Noodle Mama - A Bowl of Soul

EchoPark NoodleMama01

Last year was a great year for me and J. We traveled to Asia, Central America, Canada and Europe. We photographed some beautiful weddings and contributed some work to notable food and travel publications. I re-ignited my love for cooking because of a butcher shop owned by a husband and wife. We earned our scuba diving certification. I moved on from a painful layoff and discovered the joys of being a freelancer. Jeni left her hell-hole school and found her love for teaching at another institution. But most importantly, we started some friendships with people we would otherwise never meet, simply through the writing of food. I could write a whole posting, and I will one day, on the important people in our lives that continue to inspire us to write our blogs. But for this posting, I'm introducing you to a gentleman known as JD. Some of you may know him through his Twitter handle as Tricerapops – yes, he is a proud father of three adorable triplet girls. Completely decked out in Hello Kitty mafia gear. And he enjoys ranting about football and wine, wine and more wine.

Knowing how much J and I love noodles, we received an email from Tricerapops one day, inviting us to come over to his mom's house for some Vietnamese soup noodles. We didn't know him really nor have we met him in person and due to some conflicting schedules, we ended up postponing. But he continued to send us emails over a few months and finally one day, I gave him a call.

Me: "So your mom makes Vietnamese soup noodles?"
JD: "Yeah, she does it every few months and just opens up her house to anyone."
Me: "Anyone?"
JD: "Yeah, she's been doing this for a long time?"
Me: "For no charge?"
JD: "None. This is what she enjoys doing. And today she has pho."
Me: "We're in there like swimwear."

So on a summer Saturday, J and I headed out to Echo Park to finally meet Tricerapops and eat some soup noodles. Not knowing what his mom likes, we stopped at a Vietnamese bakery and grabbed whatever looked tasty as a pre-thank you. I thought about durian since it's basically a Vietnamese narcotic, but my car would reek. We showed up to the house and we were greeted by JD. From his comments on past postings, we had a pretty good idea of his personality and character and, at that moment, it all came together. Jeni and I knew he was a good guy. Course he is. Who else would invite complete strangers to eat soup noodles at his own mom's place?

For me, there are two categories of pho. The first being the pho most of us will have – which is in a restaurant. We all have our favorite places and pretty much have a set drill on the customization of the perfect bowl of pho. The second being the pho I actually cherish the most – in a kitchen cooked by the hands of a Vietnamese woman. The pho will never taste the same from these categories as expected. At the commercial level, I've seen some kitchens with at least a dozen 3' x 2' stock pots that can serve a good 250-300 bowls. When you're boiling hundreds of pounds of beef bones for 8-10 hours overnight, you're extracting a deeper flavor unachievable at home. I've made pho before a few times and it is a long and arduous process that can still cost around $50-60 for a mere 6-8 bowls. Cough up the $5 elsewhere – it's not worth it if you're going for restaurant quality. But more importantly, the commercial pho will never be as "good" as the home-cooked pho because it misses the one ingredient that varies in every household: a mother's soul.

Growing up, my mom would make soups for us. The most popular being a borscht. Go to any Hong Kong-style cafe and you're likely to be served a watery, tepid version of the Eastern European staple favorite. But my mom added oxtail to it and it was homey. We of course ate it so often it was a staple. But I had a childhood friend that would ask for it every time he came over to our house. My mom never thought twice about making it. I then realized that he had also grown up with no father nor mother – raised only by his old grandma. He saw my mom as his. The last time I talked to him was in high school nearly 15 years ago and he asked if he could have a bowl of my mom's oxtail soup. He left for the Marines and I never heard from him again.

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From the doorway, I could see JD's mom in the background peacefully gliding across the kitchen with her own "moves". Every cook has his "moves". Mine happens to involve crashing, bumping and possible injuries if you get too close to the stove and cutting board. And JD was right about this being a dining room turned cafeteria. The table had settings for eight, wine glasses that commemorated JD's numerous wine tastings and a mound of fresh bean sprouts and herbs. And of course, the usual suspects: Sriracha, hoisin sauce and chili sauce. This was basically a pho restaurant without the restaurant. No bean sprouts garnishing the floor, balled-up napkins or bad Karaoke videos blaring in the background. Which I actually like.

We greeted JD's mom and within a few seconds she did what most Asian mothers do - politely cut out the chit chatting, tell you to sit down and get ready to eat. JD poured us some wine. I looked over at Jeni and whispered to my wife: "J, she's the Noodle Mama!"

Indeed she is. Noodle Mama is Mrs. Dang and she grew up in Saigon cooking soup noodles for family and friends whenever she could. Her mother came from Hanoi and handed down the pho legacy. When she moved to Echo Park with her family, she continued to do her thing. On any given weekend, you would find friends, family, family friends, co-workers and even neighbors. At one point, she had be-friended a few people from the local Dream Center, which houses up to 500 people in need of rehabilitation, counseling and protection from the mean streets. JD told me she once blocked out a whole Saturday for his co-workers and had them make reservations anywhere from 9 am - 6 pm. Ha! I asked her if she wanted me to buy her one of those $150 neon pho signs to place in her window, in which she declined with a laugh. I actually thought about buying one to put in my front window just to see how many people would knock on my door. Jeni killed that dream pretty quickly.

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I loved everything about the way Noodle Mama ran her "shop". She had her cilantro and onions chopped up nicely and stored in one of those Asian cookie buckets.

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A take-out box filled with some beef meatballs (bo vien). One of my fave pho toppings.

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A container of sliced beef brisket and shank (nam and chin) she made from hours of boiling – my go-to pho toppings.

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I believe she had two large pots of beef broth going, enough to serve a good 18-24 bowls. Look at the color of the broth from nicely roasted bones and yellow onions.

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Versus using a pot of hot water, she dipped the noodles in a separate pot of beef broth for that extra shot of beefiness.

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And the final touch, a large scoop of soulful broth. I loved how she used a clear Pyrex microwave bowl. Made me feel like I was at the underground viewing level of Sea World, face and hands pressed tightly against the window for a closer look. You could see everything happening in the bowl. Jeni, look at the piece of rare beef being cooked – awesome!

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Then she started to compile a bowl in this huge mixing bowl. I looked at the dining table. Okay, JD, JD's dad, JD's brother and sister all have one. Jeni has one. Except for me.

Me: "Mrs. Dang, that's not for me is it?"
Noodle Mama: "Yes! You eat!"
Me: "JD, she's kidding me right?"
JD: "Naw bro, that's all you. It's your first time here. Welcome to our house."

All of a sudden, I'm taken back to a posting I had written on the ridiculous pho challenge up in San Francisco, by a restaurant called Pho Garden. Read if you dare as I get nauseous just looking at the photos. I could wash my face in this mixing bowl if I wanted to. I sat down and Noodle Mama put the finishing touches and carefully walked the bowl over. She set it down and everyone laughed.

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And how was it? Very tasty and homey, exactly the way I imagined it to be. There was no skimping going on as some pho restaurants will do. If you wanted more meat, you knew you could very well help yourself to it. All the fixings were there at your disposal. You know the food is good when everyone around you is busy eating and not saying a word. I had barely dented my noodles when Noodle Mama, as any mother would say, reminded me that I had to eat a second bowl. Jesus. This may be the place I lay to rest. In gluttonous happiness.

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I've been to Noodle Mama's three times and have tried her pho and JD's favorite, bun rieu. She also makes bun bo hue, hu tieu and according to JD, a mean bowl of banh canh. Unfortunately, J and I may be seeing Noodle Mama less now that she is moving elsewhere and closing down her Echo Park "shop". Thank you to JD and Noodle Mama for the warm hospitality, noodles and friendship. It means a lot to us. It's my turn next to offer you a bowl of Chinese beef noodle soup.

Question: What is that one dish that you can't refuse when offered by your mom, aunt or grandma?

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, an Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh the Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

A few hours earlier, Jeni and I were able to sample one of Bourdain's first pit stops in his No Reservations: Vietnam episode – a Vietnamese crepe-like snack called banh xeo that was both fun to eat and somewhat tasty. We got there the hard way and saw first hand how hectic Saigon street traffic was from the perspective of a cyclo transport. No thanks, we were done with that tourist trap. At our guest house, we were able to rent a scooter for only $7 the whole day, which was killer cheap. Jeni didn't like the idea of it, nor would the mother-in-law, but hey, you only live once.

We pulled out our little food itinerary and talked about our next destination. There was just too much to eat but since we were on the Bourdain tip, we might as well have paid a visit to the lunch lady he also visited on the episode. This stall was a bit out off the radar but it only meant more good times on the scooter. Thanks to Cathy's many nice postings on her blog, Gastronomy, we were able to find our lunch lady with ease. It was time to meet Mrs. Thanh Thi Nguyen.

As we were on our way, I prayed to god that Nguyen Thanh Thi would make her bun bo hue. Bun bo hue, is a Central-region soup noodle dish that includes beef slices, pork sausage, fixings in an aromatic lemongrass and chili-oil broth. This is simply my favorite Vietnamese soup noodle dish. When I saw it on the Bourdain episode, I stood up, pointed at the screen and was like, "Goddamn! That looks good". With food flying out of my mouth. To fill the void, I think we got some bun bo hue that same weekend.

Go down a main street, turn left on to a smaller street and go down an alley - the instructions said. We were finally in the vicinity. I slowed down and started to look around what was basically a large courtyard with surrounding buildings. I flared my nostrils wide to detect the smell of sweet lemongrass. To my surprise, there wasn't just one food stall or restaurant, but more like 5-6 others. All with the same set up - a makeshift tent, small blue tables and small red stools. Men sat around on their scooters smoking and drinking. We scanned the courtyard from left to right and it didn't take us long to realize which one Nguyen Thanh Thi ran because out of the 5-6 stalls, there was one stall with a good 15+ customers. I took off my space-ship like helmet, removed my exhaust mask and ducked my head to look around. And there she was, as in the episode, wearing the traditional straw hat and working the control tower. We parked the scooter and she immediately greeted us with a warm smile.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Where's the Lunch Lady? Find her now!

I walked by her 'kitchen' and checked out the broth. YES! It was bun bo hue. I remembered sitting down on that little stool and just grabbing a chunk of towels to wipe my sweat. One of the ladies came over with a bottle of water and I guzzled that thing down. It was super hot and here we were about to eat some soup noodles. I looked over at Nguyen Thanh Thi and she was busting her chops over there, serving up noodles next to a scalding hot cauldron of bun bo hue broth. I know this is gross, but I wouldn't be surprised if her secret is some accidental salt if you know what I mean haha. Sick.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

The color of her broth was a fiery red, a sign of dense chili sauce and probably annatto seeds. The chocolate-like cubes you see are anything but chocolate. Andrew Zimmern would probably spend two whole episodes trying to eat this congealed, pork-blood delicacy. The Vietnamese call it huyet, and its used in pretty much used by every Asian ethnic group including the Chinese, Korean and Thais. It's not for everyone but I like it for the texture. There's not much taste to it.

Also in the cauldron were Vietnamese pork sausage patties called cha. I wish places like Wurstkuche would serve this because I'd for sure order it grilled with a bun. This is basically a beige-colored, Vietnamese version of spam that tastes good with virtually everything. Even pigs like it.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Once Nguyen Thi Thanh adds the hot noodles and toppings in the bowl, her "sous chef" takes over by adding the fragrant, red-colored broth and adding a few pieces of "pig chocolate" and Vietnamese "spam". She walked over to our little table and served us the piping hot bowls. Is it me, or do Asian servers have heat-proof hands made out of silicon? And it's not even like they're traveling a short distance, sometimes they are walking at least 50 paces to bring you your food. Most people couldn't even carry a hot bowl for more than 2 paces!

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Foreplay was over. It was business time. I had waited for this moment for a long time. To eat one of my favorite soup noodle dishes, in the country of origin, on little red stools, under heat and humidity, with my wife. I took a sip and tasted the soup, which was really nice. I've tasted a lot of bun bo hue, and this would be on the strong flavoring end that some people either like or dislike. There was a good amount of spice but a few slivers of the orange and yellow chilies could only make it better. The beef was tough and wasn't what I expected. She might have pulled out the beef shank an hour too early. But I think the best part was the "Vietnamese spam", cha. That log of goodness took up a good amount of surface area in the bowl and it was just done right – with large bits of black and white peppercorns - just how I like it. Overall, the bowl was very good and for those that may never travel to Vietnam to eat this, you can definitely find a decent bowl in Little Saigon but you won't get that Saigon experience. I still find homemade version of bun bo hue more comforting then any restaurants.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

From the scooter ride to finally eating a Bourdain-approved noodle stall run by a sweet lady, it was one awesome experience. Nguyen Thi Thanh is one of thousands of food stalls in Vietnam and in case you happen to visit on her day off, trust me when I say that you will never run out of food options. Thanks to the Gastronomer for a great find and thanks for reading.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Lunch Lady
23 Hoang Sa (Down the alley on the right side)
Cross Street: Nguyen Thi Minh Khai
District Binh Thanh
Everyday from 11 am - 2 pm

Eat Drink Style Vietnamese Banh Mi Sandwich + Panini Machine = Banhmi-ni

Banhmi-ni

At least once a month, J & I will take her mom down to Little Saigon to go play. Our routine is usually to either eat:

Pork Lemongrass Soup Noodles at Bun Bo Hue So 1 (bun bo hue)
Rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork at Tay Ho (banh cuon)
Grilled cured-pork spring rolls at Brodard (nem nuong)
Grilled dill & turmeric fish at Hanoi Restaurant (cha ca)
Rice vermicelli soup with tomato & crab at Vien Dong (bun rieu)

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Even when we're full to the brim from the food of Little Saigon, there's always one last stop: vietnamese sandwiches at Banh Mi Che Cali (Garden Grove location by the 22 freeway). The sandwich is decent, as I prefer it much over the ubiquitous Lee Sandwiches, but they do offer the 3 for $5 deal which even makes old frugal, asian people do a double-take and say, "Damn, that's cheap. how do you live?!"

For those new to the Vietnamese sandwich "banh mi", it's a mix of French and Vietnamese. During the French colonization in Vietnam, they brought the bread and pate. The Vietnamese completed the equation with their selection of meats, pickled vegetables and chili. And its a great snacky snack.

Banh Mi Che Cali is an interesting place. J cannot stand going here, so her mom & I do the work. But you know what, if you have the patience, it's actually fun to watch. At least for me. It's kind of like being in a DMV or a post office that dispenses Vietnamese food. The customers AND employees are sometimes irate and within a few seconds away from giving you a fist or elbow stamp. So you have to have patience here. The customers, will sometimes try and cut in the front, carefully watching the workers wrap up the sandwiches like hawks, making sure that they don't mess up an order or give it to the wrong person. 12 types of sandwiches, you're bound to get the same order as someone else. One time I was in line with J's mom and this lady started to nudge in like she was invisible, and I just looked at her. But she turned her head and gave me an "I'm old, hungry and not moving" look. BMCC can resolve all of this by creating something called LINES or offer service numbers. It usually takes about 15 minutes to make a transaction here, but when you get out with the goods, you're happy.

Back at home, I was about to eat my 3-for-$5 sandwich, and to tell you the truth, I immediately became uninterested in it. It looked so boring. Bread. Meat. Cilantro. Zzzz. Boring because I've been eating it for so long.

And then I thought about J's panini machine.

Hmm... I wonder.

I dressed up my sandwich with the usual pickled carrots/daikon, cilantro and jalapeno. Argh. Where's the Maggi sauce? They really skimp on the Maggi dosage so you're better off adding it yourself. As the self-appointed curator of the Maggi Museum in Los Angeles, I happily went to my cabinet and picked out my standard asian Maggi and doused it. *Sigh* The aroma.

I plugged in J's Krups panini machine and threw the sandwich in. Sorry buddy, time to get a tan. Is the panini machine not a monumental step in the culinary world and cure for those with mageirocophobia? The fine-engineered rivets that sink into the bread with a very faint sizzle. The ergonomic handle that allows you to either gently toast the bread or pulverize the sandwich to an unrecognizable pulp. The sweet timer that reminds you that bread can also cause severe house fires. I decided to smash the crap out of it b/c I wanted it thin. And right away, my maggi sauce and liver pate squeezed out of the sandwich and began to caramelize, creating an interesting smell. I held that handle down for a good 1 minute then let Mr. Krups do the rest of the work. After about 3.5 minutes, I had a new product that I proudly named with teary eyes... the "Banhmi-ni".

Banhmi-ni

How did it taste? Quite good. It was all about the warm contents and the texture of the bread. As I bit in, I felt the warm headcheese, pork and pate coat my teeth. The maggi, daikon/carrots and cilantro were also warm which was bleh. Next time around, I'll add the veggies and jalapenos AFTER I've completed the "Banhmi-ni". If you're tired of Lee Sandwiches or any other joint, take it to the next level with a simple panini machine and experience the "Banhmi-ni" for absolutely no extra charge! Plus, you can buy a lifetime supply of sandwiches and pop them in the freezer, and resurrect them with the genius panini machine. You won't be cut off by old ladies or receive an elbow to the ribs any longer.

Thanks for reading. I also recommend the $3 'hu tieu' noodles available for take-out. Good price!

Banh Mi Che Cali Bakery
13838 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
(714) 534-6987