Banana Blossom Bistro

Banana Blossom Bistro

Fizzy Lemonade“One thing leads to another…” – as the popular 80’s song goes. When I was doing my multiple visits for the last restaurant review, I had a conversation with some diners next to me, and having found out about my food blog, they recommended Banana Blossom Bistro located in the heart of Riverdale, MD.  A couple of months later, I drove by there on my way to a fave eatery and spotted it. The next day, I paid the first of a couple of visits. Entering its doors, the space was ample and looked recently renovated with lots of windows to allow a flood of natural light. After placing my order, I took a sip of the Fizzy Lemonade. It was the perfect drink for late spring with its high citrus juice content, medium-low sweetness, and the slight dizzy pop of fizziness.

Guoi Coun/Summer Rolls

Cha Giao/Spring RollsNo trip is made to a Vietnamese establishment without trying their famous appetizers. Since summer was around the corner, I ordered the Summer Rolls. The rolls were properly made with lettuce, rice noodles, boiled shrimp and slices of pork. The sauce was a nice mixture of home-made-tasting sweet sauce, chili paste, and peanuts. The bite was properly made but  it could have done with some nice aromatic herbs like basil or mint, and I found the wrapping skin a bit too chewy – the owner confessed to me that making them fresh with a softer wrap was a challenge for the moment, which is a shame. However, the Spring Rolls were a vegetarian delight with a filling made with vegetables and the rare use of taro root which added a certain unctuousness. The side sauce mixture was a balanced mixture of fish sauce, garlic, sugar, and lime juice which made it the obligatory and perfect partner to these fried rolls.

Pork Banh MiBanh Mi was an order for a certain day’s visit. This sandwich is another litmus test of a veritable Vietnamese joint, and my choice of protein that day was pork. The meat was tender, tasting savory from a marinate of Maggi sauce (de rigeur), and slightly charred with a tolerable hint of sweet. The meat was well accompanied by its usual accruements – well-marinated crunchy carrot radish pickles, batons of cucumber, herbaceous cilantro, all encapsulated by a bread that was crusty on the outside and airy in the middle, but possessing more body than the usual baguette that reminded me of Italian ciabatta. The light slathering of mayonnaise added additional richness as well as some moisture that made this sandwich so devour-able.

Grilled Lemongrass Beef Bun Noodle Salad

Another favorite dish, especially for warmer weather, is Bun Noodle Salad, and my choice was made with grilled lemongrass beef.  The whole bowl was replete with the carrot radish pickles, lettuce, mint, cucumber, tomato, crispy beansprouts, all sitting on a mound of rice vermicelli that was cooked just right.  But the obvious star in this dish was the beef that had the lemongrass aroma, tasting charred from some time on the grill, and quite “beefy” as it was the flank cut that usually exudes lots of flavor. The fish sauce mixture was the perfect to bring all these elements together with its salt, sweet, and spice elements. Full-flavored grilled beef on light summer veggie goodies –  it can’t get any better.

Grilled Shrimp
Another visit called for trying one of its grilled meat rice dishes – Grilled Shrimp. The dish was made a la carte at the order counter with the guest calling out the various elements to be placed on the plate.  The rice dish arrived with the chosen elements and the grilled shrimps. One bite into the shellfish pointed towards a fresh ingredient that was not overcooked, charred from a some time on the grill, but a bit too one-note for me with just salt as its seasoning – perhaps some white pepper would have added some more interest. However, the Saigon sauce was an excellent enhancer with its soy, lime juice, and sesame oil notes that made it sip-able.  The sides were decent and fresh, including the banana blossom salad that was quite interesting with its unique mild crunch and flavor moistened by that fish sauce mixture.

Beef Pho Noodle Soup

No review of a Vietnamese eatery is complete without savoring its Pho Noodle Soup. My bowl arrived brimming with all its usual elements. The beef was lean and of good quality, accompanied by the sweet onions, rice noodles, fragrant cilantro and green onions, and a side plate of the usual hot peppers, beansprouts, and basil leaves. The liaison was the soup that tasted quite beefy and a hint of sweet onions and wood spices.  There was really nothing to fault here but its balance of proportion; there was just too much noodles compared to the meat. I couldn’t finish the noodles (quite rare) and I was searching for more pieces of that quality meat to go with each slurp. But other than that quibble, it was a proper bowl of pho.

Banana Blossom Bistro is a breath of fresh air, cuisine-wise, in an area which desperately needs that sort of injection.  The dishes here pointed to authentic fare with the flavors that were well-calibrated and full-bodied, from the tasty summer rolls and spring rolls, to the well-made Banh Mi sandwich, the beefy Bun Noodle Salad, the sauces that added flavor to the Grilled Shrimp, and the tasty bowl of noodle soup, albeit a bit out of balance. No wonder the place was quite busy on a visit with what appears to be devoted locals. But with food this good, this place should be shared with others beyond its immediate surroundings.

 

Anh Dao

Anh Dao, Washington DC

12 years ago, my Friday dinner group used to meet up for dinner at a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant near Eastern Market, DC, since it was the halfway point between the MD and VA folks. However, it met its demise a couple of years later, and we lamented the loss of its wonderful offerings as well as its convenient location. Recently, I saw the sign of another Vietnamese eatery as this location and my group decided to meet up there. Walking into the familiar space, although chopped up to smaller real estate, I was greeted by a familiar face who called me by my name – the owners of the former eatery. Wow, they decided to reopen in the same space, Anh-Dao, and what a happy reacquaintance it was with some familiar faces.Summer Rolls / Goui Coun, Anh Dao, Washington DC
Spring Rolls / Cha Gio, Anh Dao, Washington DCAfter our smiling faces settled down from the warm effusive greetings, we perused the menu, albeit pared down from that of the last location. We started off with the usual Vietnamese appetizers. The first was Summer Rolls. The fresh wrap rolls was stuffed with the usual combination of rice vermicelli, sliced pork, sliced shrimp, and crispy lettuce leaves. It tasted like most that I have eaten in other places but I would have liked some fragrant basil leaves in the mix. The peanut sauce reminded me what I had in Vietnam, with the sauce not tasting too sweet or hoisin-like, allowing the peanut flavors to make its presence known in the peanut butter and bits used in the sauce. The next appetizer was Spring Rolls. The fried small bites were delicately made with a  stuffing that tasted savory from minced meat and a refined seasoning that was noticeable but subtle at the same time. The pieces were greaseless to the touch, pointing to a kitchen that knows oil temperature for frying. This was a good start indeed.

Steamed Chicken Dumplings, Anh Dao, Washington DCA non-Vietnamese appetizer was written in the menu and that struck my curiosity – Steamed Chicken Dumplings. What arrived looked very much like Japanese gyozas.  One bite revealed its nature. The skin was the usual quite thin dough encasing a delicious filling. Notes of finely minced chicken were mixed in with finely shredded vegetables and punctuated by notes of green onion and garlic. This savory mix made every bite pleasurable along with the dark soy dip that was bit sourish, sweet, and salty at the same time.

Shrimp Papaya Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother appetizer that caught my eye was not the usual – Shrimp Papaya Salad. What arrived was a plate of green papaya strands, julienned carrot, sliced shrimp, topped with basil and cilantro leaves that added their herbaceous notes. But what made this dish sing were the details in the dish. The fried shallots added a caramelized dark note and the crushed peanuts its nutty rich crunch. But the magic in the dish was the sauce that was perfectly balanced with its salty and umami fish sauce, and the right balance of sugar and lime juice. I kept coming back to that elixir sauce throughout the whole meal for its-so-goodness.

Shrimp Crispy Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DC
I recalled that the former establishment had a delicious Shrimp Crispy Noodle dish and a companion went for this order.  The large plate was replete with the crunchy brittle pasta, topped with a light sauce and pieces of medium size shrimp and lots of vegetables. But the key to the dishes is both the noodles and the sauce. The former was greaseless and perfectly crispy with a clean taste (fresh oil was used), and the sauce was both savory and slightly full-bodied, which when mixed with the noodles, it had a tinge of smokiness that I found very appealing. I wouldn’t hesitate to order this at all.

Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll Bun Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCGrilled Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother noodle dish is the Combination Noodle Salad. What arrived was a huge bowl of rice vermicelli, paired with some finely sliced vegetables and topped with grilled chicken, grilled shrimp and a chopped up spring roll. The chicken and shrimp were slightly sweet and salty, pointing to a good seasoning and marination, and grilled with some slight char to its ends. The spring roll was as good as the appetizer.  This was a huge bowl that my friend was thoroughly enjoying since its his Vietnamese favorite. Another companion’s order on another night had the noodles changed for steamed rice, which he seemed to be content with.

Shaky Beef, Anh Dao, Washington DCShaky Beef was my order on my “first” visit. It’s name comes with the tossing action when it is cooked in the wok. What arrived were small cubes of beef cooked with some white onions. A whiff of it was a good indicator of the dish’s quality. The beef was quite tender, tasting uber savory with a soy/sugar sauce made sweeter by the onions. I enjoyed not only the incredible flavor but also the size of each morsel that made you appreciate the meal without feeling that you are biting into the side of the cow. The moderate portion was just right for me, and I was left complete sated by this dish.

Pho Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCThe real litmus test of a Vietnamese pho place is it soup noodles.  Since the owner knows me well, she decided to place a special order for me. What arrived was a combination of raw steak (the usual), flank steak, meat balls, and tripe.  The meats were of good quality especially the beef balls that tasted home made, and the usual for the noodles. But the key ingredient is the soup that was where my focus was throughout this meal.  It tasted full-bodied, an indication of use of lots of bones, slightly sweet from onions, and slightly woodsy (cinnamon, star-anise) with their evenly calibrated tones without jarring the senses.  I was thoroughly enjoying this bowl until the last drop of clean-tasting (no msg) broth, and I would stop in here for that hot bowl when in town.

Complementary Orange, Anh Dao, Washington DCYes, it has been a decade since I saw the owners in the same establishment, albeit reopened but smaller. But somethings have not changed. The high quality cooking is evident especially in the shrimp papaya salad, shaky beef, shrimp crispy noodles, the combination noodles or rice, and the pho noodles. So has the warm and friendly service from the owners whose husband-cook came out to greet me.  The complementary dessert confirmed another unchanged variable – incredibly sweet oranges to end the meal that never departed from this superior quality (Where do they find them consistently sweet?). This place has been definitely added back to our dinner rotations, and we all are glad to have them back in business again.

Anh-Dao Taste of Vietnam Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Highlights 2015

I’m posting this blog to highlight the restaurants and dishes that I enjoyed the past year. Happy New Year to everyone.

Zaytinya (read Blog)

Batijan Bin Laban - Zaytinya, D.C.

Turkish Coffee Chocolate Cake & Matisha Ice Cream - Zaytinya, D.C.

Batijan Bin Laban/Fried Eggplant
Turkish Coffee Chocolate Cake, Matisha Ice Cream

Askale Cafe (Read Blog)

Vegetarian Combination, Askale Cafe, Washington DC

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DC
Askale Vegetarian Combination
Ethiopian Coffee

Yuan Fu (Read Blog)

Chow San Shein

Veggie Duck with Basil & Ginger
Chow San Shein
Veggie Duck with Basil and Ginger

Toki Underground (Read Blog)

Fried Chicken Steamed Buns

Toki Classic Ramen

Fried Chicken Steamed Bun
Toki Classic Ramen

El Patio (Read Blog)

Empanada Tucumana

Grilled Ribeye Steak
Empanada Tucumana
Grilled Ribeye Steak

I Love Pho (Read Blog)

Bo Bun Hue

Crispy Noodle
Bo Bun Hue/Spicy Beef Noodle
Crispy Noodle

Myong Dong (Read Blog)

20150823_124959

20150823_124522
Be Beam Naeng Myun/Cold Buckwheat Noodles
Mandu/Korean Noodles

Thip Kao (Read Blog)

Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon Wraps

Laab E'kae/Minced Alligator Salad
Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon Wraps
Laab E’kae/Minced Alligator Salad

Thank you for following my blog in 2015.  I hope you will enjoy my new finds and postings for the new year.  Happy Eating.

I Love Pho

In all the three years of this food blogging business, the cuisine whose restaurants I have reviewed and have closed the most is Vietnamese, numbering 3, not counting those I didn’t write about.  Furthermore, recently, one of favorite places located near me folded up suddenly, which left a significant hole in my gastronomic palette. Consequently, a mission was set in me to find a worthy replacement, and a worthwhile place appeared unexpectedly in a most improbable place. I Love Pho is located at the back of an International grocery store in the heart of Laurel, MD. The space has seen one eatery after another come and go, and the opening of this food establishment piqued my curiosity. Initially, I was a bit nonplussed by their offering in their early days. However, there was a change of chef a few weeks later, and their dishes were starting to raise my eyebrows. After paying it a number of visits to sample the various dishes, I felt that I Love Pho was worth a write-up.

Spring Rolls

This eatery offers only two appetizers, and both are the usual Vietnamese standards. Cha Gio are Vietnamese spring rolls that I love from this cuisine. Their rendition here captured my attention from the first bite. The rolls were perfectly deep-fried, nearly greaseless to the touch. One bite into the roll revealed a very savory stuffing of minced pork, carrot, and shrimp, well-seasoned with spices and white pepper, and a slight touch of bounce from the bean noodle and wood fungus. But it is this same mixture that takes these rolls to another level as if having gone through a process of transubstantiation, tasting savory and beckoning the eater for more bites. The dipping sauce was also revelatory with its decent fish sauce, a good hit of lime juice, a hint of garlic, some crushed chili for some heat, and enough sugar to “round off” the strong flavors, making it worthy to sip like an elixir.

Summer Roll

The other standard opener is Goi Cuon or Summer Roll. During my visits, they were made a la minute which made them stand out from other establishments. The rice paper was supple and not chalky at all (due to refrigeration), wrapping the usual suspects of shrimp, pork, basil, and rice stick noodles. I also appreciated the shrimp that was not overcooked and the pieces of pork that were seasoned with enough salt, unlike the bland meat found in other places. The dipping sauce, tasting house-made, was not just only sweet from the  Hoisin, but salty enough to balance out the latter flavor, making it stand apart from other versions which tend to be lacking in the salt department. Again, another sauce that is finger-licking-good here. Unfortunately, my last order was refrigerated, resulting in the brittle and chalky qualities in these bites.

Banh Mi

One thing that I appreciate in this place is the serving of a Vietnamese favorite, Banh Mi, which can be hard to come by. The sandwich comes with an opened French baguette that was crusty and fairly spongy inside, stuffed with ham, Vietnamese salami, some daikon and carrot pickles, crunchy cucumber, crispy jalapeño, and fragrant cilantro. What adds some interest in these stuffed rolls is the salami that is studded with piquant peppercorns and made fragrant with some five-spice powder. Furthermore, the bread has been slathered with some rich paté on one side and the other garlic butter – yes, you read that right. The result is a bite that is completely irresistible, the sum of all the disparate elements that seem to fit in just right in that crusty bun. At $5 each, this is a damn good sandwich.

Pork Bun Salad

Another room temperature dish is Pork Bun Salad. The deconstructed bowl arrived with the various ingredients hugging their separate territories: Grilled Pork, pickles, basil leaves, cucumber, and crushed peanuts, all sitting on a mound of bouncy rice stick noodles.   The meat was perfectly cooked and tasting equally well seasoned with notes of fish sauce saltiness and some sugar sweet.  That amazing fish sauce dipping sauce is served to be poured on the mixture that binds all the bowl partners together.  This is another perfect summer dish in my books.

Pho Noodle

The ultimate litmus test in a Vietnamese place is its Beef Pho Noodles. Having said that I was not too wowed by the previous chef’s cooking, I was immediately impressed by this bowl with the change of guard. The secret to a good bowl of noddle is always in the broth, and this version grabbed my attention with the first sip. The fairly clear soup tasted complex from beef bones, interesting from the use of wood spices without shouting out their individual characteristics, and slightly dark and sweet from burnt whole onions. The co-stars in the bowl were equally impressive with the meat balls, thinly sliced beef, the bouncy Pho noodles, and the different garnishing which included the rarely served long leaf called Culantro in the Caribbean. After ingesting this revised recipe for the first time, I knew something was up in the back kitchen, and I did return indeed to try the other dishes.

Bo Bun Hue

The second litmus, in my mind, is another noodle soup, Bun Bo Hue, if it is offered at all in a Vietnamese joint. This is a spicy fragrant beef noodle soup with which the secret also lies in the broth like the above. The first sip of it again raised my eyebrows; it was complex with the lemongrass citrus fragrant hit, spicy with a slight throat-burning chili heat, and savory from the use of bones and the slightly funky shrimp paste in the making of its broth. Furthermore, some of the edible ingredients pointed towards a level of authenticity, notably blood cake and slices of tendon and pig’s feet. Not only I cannot get enough of this wonderful bowl, but also a friend who refuses to drink water as to not dilute the soup that he would devour until its last drop. I guess that is a testament to its oh-so-goodness.

Crispy Noodle

Not all noodle dishes served here are the soup form. Tucked in the menu, and not on the display board, is Seafood Crispy Noodle. The first time I ordered this, they had forgotten the order, and after reminding them, the result that landed on my table was a sub par rushed job. However, I gave it another try. The second time around, it met my expectations. The noodles were perfectly crispy and cooked in-house, judging by the loud WHOOSH in the kitchen. The topping was a very tasty and savory mixture of seafood and vegetables: fish ball, perfectly cooked shrimp, squid (a bit overcooked the second time), faux crab (didn’t care for that) and a melange of slightly crispy but cooked vegetables.  It was the sauce that not only tasted perfectly seasoned and savory, but it was more than enough liquid to soften the noodles with its flavors. I’m glad I give this dish another chance, making it high on my order list.

Grilled Chicken

There are a couple of grilled meat dishes worth mentioning. The first is Grilled Chicken. Pieces of well-marinated chicken thigh (not breast, whew) have been grilled until the tips are slightly charred and crispy.  What makes each bite sing in the mouth is the long marination that exuded fragrant lemongrass, salty fish sauce, a hint of garlic, and some sweetness.  The salad with pickles and some rice were the perfect foil to these rich tasting bites.  Usually not part of the meal, I always request a bowl of that so-good Pho soup to go with the meal, which they are happy to oblige me.  With all these well done components, this is truly a satisfactory dinner worth ordering repeatedly.

Grilled Pork

The other grilled meat dish is Grilled Pork Chop. Again, pieces of pork chop have been marinated and pan-fried. The meat was slightly salty from fish sauce and sweet at the same time, while a dose of softened green onions added slight sweet pungency to these bites. However, the plate partners were equal heavy weights on the plate. The slice of meat loaf was very savory with a slight bounce from the use of wood fungus, as well as the pig skin salad that belied its nature with its slight smokiness and tasty allure. What makes this dish successful is the equal attention given to all the elements on the plate.

Bo Kho

A couple of stews round-up this review. Bo Kho is a beef stew with pieces of carrot. Again, one sip of the broth pointed towards a set of knowledgeable and expert hands. It was perfumed with some lemongrass, sweetened with some tomato and the carrot pieces, spiced with some star-anise, and made savory by the pieces of quality beef that just fell apart in the mouth. A side of crusty baguette was the perfect vehicle to sop up every drop of this wonderful sauce. An alternative serving is with noodles, but I prefer the bread with these tasty meaty bites.

Goat Curry

The other stew, and final dish, is Cari De, Goat Curry. This dish was not what I expected at all. Pieces of goat meat with the skin intact were coated in a thick curry sauce, more viscous than the usual Vietnamese curry. Furthermore, it was slightly sweet and it had a hint of acid (confirmed by the chef) with more spice fragrance than the usual renditions, tasting a step above Japanese curry but not the Madras kind. I started to appreciate the rather complex curry sauce as well as the meat whose mild-tasting skin I eventually got used to. Again, the baguette bread was the perfect accompaniment for the dish, instead of the noodles.

The low customer presence in this eatery made me wonder if I was off my game by raving about this small unassuming place, like some kind of crazy lonewolf. Checking online reviews of it, my praises for it were echoed by both novices and cognoscentis of the cuisine. I don’t know how long this establishment will last in this spot, but I hope more people will discover it and start to patronize this hidden treasure, albeit in the back of a supermarket. No doubt, all this was said for my own selfish benefit and hungry stomach.

Pho & Grill 198

Pho & Grill 198Vietnamese Restaurants pose quite a challenge for any blogger, especially for this reviewer.  In the past, I have griped about the lack of good establishments outside of traditional Vietnamese communities, like Eden Center, Fairfax, VA, with offerings beyond the expected bowl of Pho noodles.  I have also lamented about the demise of a few restaurants of this cuisine, of which one served outstanding modern and traditional dishes whose flavors were indelible in my mind.  In addition, some places that I have visited have not maintained their standards after a few months of opening, and they have fallen off my must-visit list. So, when a new Vietnamese joint opened just down the road from me in Burtonsville, MD, I had mixed emotions, not knowing which course this culinary adventure would take me.

Pho & Grill 198 occupies what once used to be a Chinese restaurant in the middle of a strip mall that would escape one’s attention in a blink of the eye. I so happened to stumble upon this new establishment when I took my parents to try Ethiopian food a couple of doors down (a rare visit from Australia), and after picking up its take-out menu, I noticed some interesting dishes that went beyond my expectation.  Walking in there for the first time, the well-lacquered furniture and wooden floors, perhaps leftover from its previous life, exuded a warm welcoming ambiance with lots of light streaming through the storefront windows. Well, after a few visits to this spot, here is my report.

Fresh Lemon JuiceDurian Smoothie

Drinks maybe not the highlight in one’s meal, but I do enjoy some from this cuisine.  I had to try the Lemonade, listed as Fresh Lemon Juice.  After hearing the sound of a stirring spoon in a glass coming from the bar, I know that it was made a la minute.  Fresh it was, indeed, filled with bits of tart bits of lemon, sweet enough without sending you into a diabetic shock – the perfect end-of-summer thirst quencher.  Another drink that I honed in on the menu came from the smoothies section, and I had to go for my favorite flavor – Durian.  My glass came filled with a thick icy creamy concoction that tasted rich and milky, with the pungent Durian sulphuric notes (some describe it as “rotting garbage”) cutting through and overshadowing the diary’s innocent mild flavors.  I love the funkiness of this Southeast Asian fruit that I grew up on, and I was savoring every drop like a prized treasure – not for the uninitiated but totally up my alley.  The drinks category are worth looking at, beyond the usual glass of water I usually settle for.

Crispy Spring RollsSummer Rolls

Pleiku style Rice Paper RollsWell, moving on to the appetizers. This place offers a number of types of rolls, some familiar and some not. The Crispy Spring Roll was ordered on one occasion.  What set them slightly apart from most that I have savored was the flavors of crab meat and shrimp that were more pronounced even though they were ground up together into the pork mixture.  They were tasty, fairly light and greaseless, but I did miss the use of taro root in the traditional recipe that adds the certain soft texture to a dense filling (a rare practice these days).  However, they were pretty good light bites.   Since it was summer, I also had to try their Summer Roll. The  rice paper wrapping was still fairly soft and moist without the chalkiness from refrigeration.  The stuffing was a combination of slices of sweet shrimp (a bit overcooked and tough for me) and savory pork, mixed with lettuce, mint and Perilla leaves.  The addition of the herbs in the bundle added a note of interest to this savory light combination, not commonly found in other versions, which I found refreshing with these bites.  The last type of roll savored was something completely new for me – Pleiku Style Rice Paper Rolls.  This Rice Paper bundle comes stuffed with grilled beef, grilled pork stick (like spam), crispy roll, fried egg, cucumber and mixed pickles. Wow, what a roll it was!  I was enjoying the myriad of flavors, all tasting well-prepared and well-seasoned, and textures from the various partners who happen to get along well with each other in the cramped roll.   These bites encompassed all the good things I like about this cuisine, brought together in this super roll. This has become my favorite roll which hails from the owner’s Central Vietnam hometown.

Banh XeoRoasted Quail

Stir-fried Baby ClamsPerusing the menu for the first time, I noticed a couple of dishes in the same section that are not usually found in other Pho places. The first is Banh Xeo or Stuffed Vietnamese Crepes.  A couple of yellowish crepes arrive stuffed with shrimp, beef, onion, and beansprouts.  The shrimps were large and sweet, the beef well-seasoned and tasty, onions sweet, and the beansprouts added the necessary slight crunch to the mixture. But what made the dish stand out were the crepes themselves.  The skins were smoky from being cooked on a smoking cast-iron to produce this crisp and slightly charred crepe (“Xeo” in the name denotes the sizzling of the mixture hitting the hot pan).  The version served here may not be rich with coconut milk (a South Vietnamese trait), but the whole mixture was appealing enough for a friend considering hijacking my dish.  The briny fish sauce was the obligatory and necessary accompaniment to bring saltiness to the unseasoned crepe, which is the case in the traditional approach.   Another appetizer that immediately caught my attention was Roasted Quail.  My order arrived with the miniature bird shiny from a good lacquering and dark from the roasting.  The meat was quite firm yet moist, pulling off the bone rather easily, and exuding exotic notes from the judicious use of five-spice powder that made each bite delectable and the bones somewhat edible too.  Good things come in all sizes, and this small bite is no exception.  Another order that night was Stir-Fried Baby Clams.  The plate arrived with a mixture of the bits of seafood mixed with herbs, topped with crispy fried shallots, along with a plate of rice crackers.  One bite into the dish pointed towards mild and subtle flavors.  I enjoyed this mixture with the sweet tasting baby clams, the crunchy and aromatic fried shallots, the fragrance from mint leaves and pungent Vietnamese Rau Ram herb, and hints of lemongrass and chili wafting through each mouthful.  The rice crackers made the perfect vehicle for the soft seafood with their crunchy texture and for the added savoriness that they lent to each bite. The above appetizers are worth a try, and making the Banh Xeo and Baby Clams into a main course is possible due to the portion size, like my friends and I have done so on our visits.

Shrimp Bun Noodle Salad

Grilled PorkFor the main course, there are selections of dry and soup dishes.  From the non-soup entrees, I ordered Shrimp Bun Noodle Salad on one occasion.  The bowl arrived with a mound of rice noodles surrounded by the usual suspects of mint leaves, cucumber, lettuce, and pickled root vegetables, all topped with a heap of cooked butterflied shrimp, fried spring rolls, and a sprinkling of nutty peanuts.  After pouring the obligatory fish sauce mixed with some Sriracha sauce, the dish tasted very much like how most Bun salads do.  However, what sets this version apart was the shrimp that tasted a bit sweet and charred from some hot grill action, albeit a bit too long judging but its slight toughness.   But, I was enjoying the mini fried spring roll bits that provided the textural contrast to the soft elements in the bowl.  A friend’s order of Grilled Pork Rice dish arrived with an impressive amount of the grilled meat.  One bite into his dish made a wonderful impression: well-marinated meat tasting slightly sweet and salty, and slightly smoky from its stay on the hot grill.  The bits of fried green onions added the slight onion-like fragrance to these meaty bites.  Another friend’s order made with Grilled Beef was equally impressive with a hit of lemongrass that exuded it citrus root fragrance to these clean tasting yet well-marinated pieces.  Another friend’s order of Combination Fried Rice was skilfully made with lightly oiled yellow rice studded with pieces of meat and shrimp, onions and pieces of vegetables, all delicately seasoned – I couldn’t resist but take more than a couple of scoops from my friend’s plate.

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue GarnishSince it was a Pho establishment, I knew I had to try their noodle soups.  Ever since I was introduced to Bun Bo Hue in a now-defunct establishment, this dish had to be ordered on one of my visits here.  The bowl was brimming with some steaming reddish soup, covering some round rice noodles and bits of off-cuts like beef shank and pork knuckles, along with Vietnamese ham and some vegetables.  But the star of the dish, and deservedly so, is the broth that had hints of herbal lemongrass, spicy chili kick, and a seafood pungency from the use of shrimp paste, much like anchovy paste.  The side plate of sliced cabbage, banana blossom, mint, Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram), Perilla leaves (cousin of Shiso), added the additional textural interest and herbal qualities to this savory spicy dish.  As if the soup was not shrimpy enough, a container of fermented shrimp paste added more sea brininess to the mix.  I have to admit that this is the best version I have eaten in quite some time, and I’m glad I can just head down the road for this spicy bowl.

Pho Tai

Pho TaiA bowl of the proverbial Pho noodles was calling my name on another visit, and I chose the simple Pho Tai.  The bowl of hot steaming bowl came with a mound of eye-round steak sitting on rice noodles surrounded by a clear soup. After separating the paper-thin beef slices and cooking them in the broth, I could taste the mild beef flavors that were indicative of fresh quality meat. But what grabbed my attention was the broth that was perfectly seasoned without a trace of MSG, with faint hints of the spices used in its cooking, without any single spice standing out – a completely round flavor.  Usually one for stronger flavors in my Pho broth (more star-anise, more cassia bark), I marveled at this “roundness” of flavor, and I don’t think anyone would find fault with this bowl.

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Flan CakeDesserts do not feature extensively in Asians cuisine, Vietnamese included.  However, I couldn’t help but order Flan Cake at the end of dinner one night, this dish obviously being a vestige of French rule.  A small bowl arrived with the cooked custard surrounded by coffee, with shaved ice perching on the cake as well as pieces swimming in the caffeinated liquid.  This was an interesting combination with the slightly sweet and creamy flan mixed with the slightly bitter and under sweetened coffee.  I quite enjoyed this interesting pairing, but it would have been more successful if the coffee was sweeter since it was robbing some of the flan’s sugars, which made the cake a bit flat.  A friend’s night-cap of Vietnamese Coffee arrived on the table in its traditional style: a filtering contraption sitting on top of a shot glass filled with thick sweet condensed milk.  A sip from his glass confirmed what I like about Vietnamese coffee – sweet, strong and bitter without the acrid notes (usually found in American coffee), exuding aromatic chicory notes from its roasting.

Vietnamese CoffeePho & Grill 198 is not your typical Pho noodle place. What this place offers is far beyond what one usually expects from this type of establishment, with offerings of the wonderful “super” Pleiku roll, the aromatic Roasted Quail, the subtle but tasty Baby Clams, the smoky and crispy Crepes, the rounded flavors in the Pho noodles, and the wow factor that I savored in the Bun Bo Hue spicy noodle soup.  An establishment of this kind in the suburbs is a rare find, even more so in a not-so-diverse suburban town in Montgomery county.  But judging by the stream of clients entering its doors, the word is out that something good is going on here.  Fortunately for me, it is just a stone throw away from my house, and I will be walking through its doors with some frequency for the wide variety of its scrumptious Vietnamese offerings.

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Banh Mi>Addendum:
Pho & Grill 198 has just started serving the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich, Banh Mi, and I had a taste of it today. Fresh crusty baguette, crispy vegetables, sweet and sour pickles, Jalapeño bite, fragrant cilantro, and marinated lemongrass grilled meat – a winning combination!! Finally this sandwich has made it to this side of the DMV.

Pho & Grill 198 on Urbanspoon

Pho Kevin

In past blogs, I have posted and quibbled that finding a decent Vietnamese restaurant outside of their established communities has been like searching for the Holy Grail.   Complicating matters and my hunt, the few that I have blogged about have folded up to much of my dismay.  I had pretty much resorted to trekking to Northern Virginia (read blog) to savor some of my favorite dishes when the mood hits me to endure the 35-mile drive.

Pho Kevin

Recently, my BFF and I were driving around Laurel, MD, to find fabric to replace the upholstery of his dining room set, he having just become a new home owner just like I have.  On our way out, we spotted a new establishment that had taken over a defunct Chinese take-out.  Looking at the new restaurant sign, we couldn’t help but remark that its name was an eye-catcher, one being that most Pho places are never named after a particular person, the other that it was my bestie’s name; he posted a photo of it on Facebook and many fell for the joke thinking that he had opened it himself.  A few days later, BFF and I decided to pay Pho Kevin a visit during one of our rendezvous around the area.  After that visit, I knew that it was going to be featured as my next blog.

Cha Gio/Fried Spring Rolls

Some of my favorite appetizers are the Vietnamese kind, especially their rolls.  On one visit, I ordered the Cha Gio, or Fried Spring Roll.  The two thin rolls arrived piping hot with a fish sauce concoction and some pickled carrots and daikon on the side.  The rolls were decent with a rather compact stuffing of minced shrimp and pork, tasting very savory and more peppery that what I was used to.  The outer shell was the Chinese spring roll skin rather than the rice paper used in more traditional places, encasing the stuffing that was a bit too dense for my taste – the traditional use of taro root would lighten it up.  Most Vietnamese places have gotten away from serving these rolls with some fresh herbs and lettuce, and unfortunately, this place was no exception.  However, the side of Nuoc Cham was the right mixture of quality briny fish sauce, acidic vinegar, sweet sugar, and some chili heat.  Anywhere that serves quality fish sauce that is smooth and not overly pungent indicates a house that cares and pays attention to the small details.

Fresh Summer RollThe other type of roll is the Fresh Spring Roll, or Goi Cuon.  The rolls arrived just like what I expected.  Rice paper is used to wrap a filling of rice vermicelli, lettuce, slices of pork, and slices of boiled shrimp, served with a Hoisin-based sauce sprinkled with some crushed peanuts.  What made these rolls good were subtle.  The rice paper skin was slightly moist and tasted recently made, not prepared in advance and refrigerated which would turn the starch slightly chalky to the bite.  But here, it was all fresh and supple to the bite, with the shrimp tasting sweet and the pork slices exuding its porcine beauty.  Despite the lack of salt in the rolls, it was the sauce that was the compensatory note with its sweet and salty fragrant Hoisin sauce cooked with some creamy rich nutty coconut cream, while the bits of peanuts added its nuttiness to the dip.  Unfortunately, an extra note of mint and basil leaves would have completed the whole package.  Nevertheless, this was quite good and it did not take me long to finish these two rolls off.

Pho Beef NoodleBun Bo Hue/Spicy Beef Noodle

A friend’s order one day was Pho Tai, or Rare Eye Round Steak Noodle Soup.  The bowl was filled with a slightly murky soup surrounding a mound of rice noodles and topped with slices of raw lean beef, thin enough to be gently cooked by the piping hot broth.  Having a sip of the liquid, I could taste the use of cinnamon and star-anise in the broth, as well as the use of beef bones causing the pieces to lend its marrow goodness and depth of flavor.  My Vietnamese friend gave his approval with this bowlful as he thought that it was up to scratch.  My order on that day was Bun Bo Hue.  It is a Spicy Beef Noodle with various “pieces” of uhm, meat and etc.  The noodle was the proper kind, being the round thicker version not found with the regular noodle soup, moistened by a beefy soup made spicy with whole dried red chilis.  What makes this dish unique is the use of “off-cuts” in the dish: skin, tendon, knuckle, and other unrecognizable pieces.  Unfortunately, the traditional use of congealed blood was not served which was a bit of a disappointment for this diner who doesn’t mind that funky bite.  The customary serving of the slightly fishy shrimp paste and a dollop of dried chili paste added to the unique experience, along with a plateful of chopped cabbage, fragrant Vietnamese mint (Rau Ran), and a slice of lime that added some crunch and citrus kick.  I have not found many Pho places serving this unique spicy bowl, and I’m glad that this is close to my house.

Grilled Pork, Shredded Pork, and Meat LoafGrilled Beef and Fried Egg

One thing that sets this Pho house apart from other noodle houses is the serving of rice dishes and grilled meats.  When I set foot here for the first time, I ordered the Grilled Beef Rice dish, and was I impressed.  The dish arrived with the grilled beef, meat loaf, shredded pork, and a mound of steamed rice.  What got my attention immediately were the pieces of well-marinated and moist pieces of meat, tasting both salty and slightly sweet, with a hint of caramelization, and brought to another level with the fragrant lemongrass that left its mark in the aftertaste without overwhelming the subtle flavors – I bite into each morsel intrigued by all the different notes that sang harmoniously.  The shredded  pork compromised of  finely sliced pork skin that belied its nature by the flavor hinting of smoky ground rice powder, but betrayed by its bouncy texture (a friend finished it with no idea what it was).  The meat loaf was a light concoction of minced meat pressed together with a beaten egg topping, tasting savory and akin to French paté but a la Vietnam.  The side broth was so good with a rich tasting body made more enticing with drops of shallot oil swimming on top, which made it the perfect accompaniment and palate cleanser to the meaty morsels.  A friend’s order of Grilled Pork was equally tantalizing with the similar treatment in seasoning and cooking.  Indeed, the rice dishes here are definitely worth one’s attention when perusing the menu.

Shrimp Bun Salad

During my last visit, I was in the mood for the Grilled Shrimp Bun Salad since it was sunny and in the 60’s, which felt like a heat wave after weeks of Polar frigid weather.  The bowl arrived filled with springy (and slightly al dente) rice vermicelli, finely chopped lettuce, julienned cucumber, bean sprouts, pickles, fresh mint, and 5 pieces of large shrimp, sprinkled with some crushed peanuts and green onions.  But what sets this version apart from the others is the shrimp that had a beautiful caramelization from its stay on the grill and the slightly sweet marinate with bits of slightly charred lemongrass that added more interest to the seafood.  And the pieces were perfectly cooked with no bouncy texture in each bite, which astounded me.  The quality fish sauce was the icing on the cake in this salad, and I was spooning up whatever was left in the bowl once the noodles were gone.  I’m looking forward to savoring this noodle salad in the warmer months to come.

Che 3 Mau/Three Bean DessertOn one visit, I was inspired to try out one of their desserts, which is a combo of a few of their offerings – Che 3 Mau or Three Color Dessert.  The milkshake glass contained some red beans, cooked yellow lentils, and green jelly – such starches are commonly found in Southeast Asian desserts.  But turning these ingredients into a sweet bite was the use of sugar syrup and a good douse of some coconut cream, topped by a mound of ice shavings.  Even though my dining companions were quite sated from their main dishes, they could not help but dip their long spoons into the tall glass for the sweet beans and a spoonful of the chilled sweet coconut cream – definitely worth trying if there is room, or no room, for a sweet end.

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Ca Phe Sua/Coffee and Condensed MilkAh, Pho Kevin is worthy of a write-up for its wonderful offerings.  Its Pho dishes are well-made, but what sets it apart from other places is the spicy beef noodle (Bun Bo Hue), to the tasty and fragrant grilled meat dishes, to the wonderfully grilled shrimp in the Bun Salad with that quality fish sauce, to the sweet bean dessert.  I am thrilled that I can visit an establishment close to my home that serves such variety of dishes beyond the beef noodle soup Pho dish that can be found nearly strip mal in the region.  After nearly 5 months in business, seeing a steady stream coming through its doors is a good indicator of the savory dishes that people are beginning to recognize and enjoy.  I’m just hoping that this place is here to stay, and judging by what I have enjoyed there, it stands a great chance of doing so.

Pho Kevin on Urbanspoon

Montreal

Montreal, CanadaFor the last few years, a good buddy and I have been travelling to Montreal, Canada, a city that we have fallen in love with for its walking neighborhoods, the quietness of a metropolis, the outdoor cafes and restaurants, the beautiful sights of cathedrals and wide esplanades, the carefree Jazz festival, the air of French sensibility without having to cross the Atlantic, and finally the wonderful cuisine that tantalized us during each visit. This francophone city boasts nearly as many restaurants as the top contender, New York City. Here is a list of eating establishments that we have visited and are worth mentioning.
Grilled SalmonBreaded Shrimp

SpanakopitaOn our last trip last week, after getting off the plane and dropping off our bags at the hotel, we immediately made a bee-line to the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood, specifically to Rue Prince Arthur, a pedestrian street lined with open air eating establishments. Here you are able to find local Greek restaurants offering great lunch deals, four-course lunches for around $15. On one visit (usually more than one is paid), my starter was a generous piece of Spanakopita pie consisting of light and flaky filo dough interspersed with some crumbly feta cheese and spinach filling made savory from some enigmatic Greek spices; my friend’s lentil soup in another establishment was his favorite starter. My main course (not entrée – here it means appetizer) was a plate of well-seasoned rice, a tasty and well-dressed Greek salad, some crispy wedges of potato and finally the main star, a healthy piece of grilled salmon steak, moist and perfectly cooked. My friend’s portion of butterflied shrimp was tasty but the breading was off-putting to him; he prefers plain grilled shrimp which he has had before at another establishment that has, unfortunately, burned down. Usually a slice of moist cake and coffee or tea are the remaining courses to the long lunches that we relish in. I would recommend both La Caverne Grecque and La Casa Grecque. A walk to the close-by Square Saint-Louis to look at the quaint French-style homes is our digestif from such a satisfying meal.

Portuguese Grilled ChickenPortuguese Ribs

Portuguese Passion Fruit SodaA bit north of the same area, many Portuguese restaurants abound in this rather diverse neighborhood. We met up with a Haitian-American Facebook friend who lives in this city, and he was dismayed when I had told him I had eaten in a specific Portuguese chicken joint a few year ago, renown for large quantities but nothing else. So, on this trip, he promised that he would take me to another that he particularly enjoys. Rotisserie Portugalia is a small corner establishment with a faded obscure sign which makes it a bit difficult to find. Entering the establishment is deceiving since all you see is a grill and a bar counter; however, the small dining room is at the back. Since the chicken is what this place is known for, my travelling buddy and I both got an order that came with a side of salad, rice, and fries. The sides were decent and tasty, but the attention-grabber was definitely the moist and well-seasoned chicken that was slightly smoky from being properly grilled and spicy from some chili flakes; even the breast meat was flavorful and not dry. My newly-met friend’s ribs were quite good but he said he had better on other occasions – sucking those bones clean sure was not a good indicator of slight discontent! The perfect drink to wash all of this down was Sumol, a Portuguese fruity soda, of which the passion fruit version really hit the spot for all of us. Thanks for the recommendation, mon ami!

Rotisserie Portugalia on Urbanspoon

Schwartz's Deli, MontrealEveryone talks about this place – Schwartz’s Deli. It is located in the same neighborhood, and there seems to be a line of tourists waiting patiently to get in on any given day in the summer. I think the place garners more attention from the fact that Celine Dion’s husband bought this sandwich shop for $10m than the reviews of the sandwiches themselves. Since my buddy and I are not excited about Jewish deli food while in Montreal, we have never entered its doors; the long lines are not exactly enticing either. But all the guide books make mention of this place, hence my two cents worth. If anyone has gone in, please let me know!

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Sauteed Salmon with Garlic Flower Sauce

Pork Terrine and Peach ChutneyOn a recent trip, a long-time Salvadoran-Canadian friend took my travelling partner and me to a French-style restaurant around the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood. Les Infideles is located off the main St. Denis Boulevard but according to my friend, it is a hidden treasure without the stuffiness of fine dining. The complementary Carrot Soup set the right tone for the rest of the evening with its rich flavors from a good amount of pureed carrot and a full soup body that made this bowl tempting to be licked clean. My friend and I decided to opt for a couple of appetizers since they appeared very appealing especially during the warm week that we had there. The Smoked Fish Plate featured pieces of Trout and Salmon smoked a la minute with Hickory wood that made each moist morsel delectable. The Snails in Blue Cheese Sauce with Puff Pastry was definitely a la francaise with plump snails matched with a perfectly balanced sauce that could have gone overboard. My appetizer of Wild Mushroom tart was bursting with the wild boschiness and the slices of blue cheese sending out its slightly bitter tones, all napped by a rich demi-glace sauce that made this vegetarian dish truly satisfying. My host’s main course of Sauteed Salmon with Garlic Flower Sauce created enough envy to this reviewer’s eyes with the moist piece of fish coated by a rich sauce, accompanied by a bouquet of plump vegetables including the dual-colored carrot that made the dish visually tentalizing. For my main, I choose the Pork Terrine and Peach Chutney which was completely up my alley with the mild and fresh-tasting chilled pressed meat well-matched by a fruity and sweet peach chutney and served with slices of rich Brioche bread. This place is well-worth the hike for its quality cooking, the value (especially for fine French cuisine), and the smart yet relaxed ambience (we complemented the waitress’s eclectic music selection). Another note: this place is BYOB, so stop for a bottle of your favorite vin on your way there.

Lunch at Jean Talon MarketLe Marché Jean-Talon, Montreal

Further up from Le Plateau-Mont Royal neighborhood is the Jean Talon neighborhood which is renown for its large open market. This is where we headed one early afternoon to have lunch. Around the food court you will find different vendors serving a wide variety of cuisines, an indication of the influx of immigration to this part of Canada. My friend had some Indian-styled lentil soup that was spiced by a touch of cumin, a rich buttery croissant, and a mango-orange juice smoothie to wash it all done. I had an Olive Ciabbata filled with roasted vegetables Blue and Goat cheeses that hit the right spots(when on a vegetarian mode) with the sweetness from the vegetables and the richness of the diary products (Brie is unpasteurized in Canada, compared to here, which tastes stronger and more bitter on the rind). For dessert, we walked around the fruits vendors and I sampled all the fruits a la Costco, enjoying all their fruity and sweet glory. We stopped by a vendor and ordered some rich Portuguese egg custard, Nata, and Macaroons that kept beckoning us to sample more unique flavors like Basil Lime. The Jean Talon Market is just off the Metro Jean Talon and worth an afternoon of gastronomic adventure.

Notre Dame, Montreal, CanadaOne of our favorite sights is Old Montreal, by the St. Lawrence River, specifically the Notre-Dame Cathedral. After a couple of hours marveling at the beautiful color-stained windows and lights that barely light up the massive house of prayer, we stopped by Les Glaceurs, an ice-cream and cupcake store. Although it is a local chain, it does not have that commercial feel. The ice-creams are well-made without being too sweet, offering a wide selection including sorbets. The cupcakes look very tempting, but the ice-cream seems to always do its job of satisfying the craving for something sweet while cooling us down. Don’t miss out on this small place located on the side of the cathedral when down by the Notre Dame.

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Vietnamese Lemongrass Chicken and Grilled shrimp

Not far from the Notre Dame is Chinatown located on the main Boulevard Saint Laurent. Many eating establishments in this area offer Vietnamese cuisine – some Vietnamese moved here due to their knowledge of French taught by their former colonialists. One simple eating establishment that we particularly enjoy is My Canh. My friend’s order of the Combo No. 1 (I’m always wary of anything combo) came with well-marinated grilled beef, chicken, grilled shrimp, along with Imperial roll, salad and rice, which he enjoyed tremendously. My order (Combo No. 2) was similar except mine consisted of lemongrass chicken filled with the root fragrance without being overwhelmed by it or too salty from fish sauce. The fish sauce dip to the tasty Imperial roll was the perfect balance of flavors. The opening clear pho soup was full of flavor and worth every sip. Note: only cash is accepted in this establishment.

My Canh on Urbanspoon

Pita with Brie, Dried Cranberries, & WalnutsSeafood in Beurre Blanc

Grilled Chicken in Mushroom SauceBistro 1272 is located in the gay-friendly part of town, Le Village, where the main Rue Sainte Catherine is closed to pedestrians decorated with overhanging pink balls in mid-air during the warm months. Bumping into some friends there, we decided to join them for dinner. After perusing the menu, I decided to go with the night’s special. The entrée was pita bread filled with flavorful Brie cheese (not the American pasteurized crap) paired with sweet dried cranberries and toasted walnuts, creating a tasty balancing act of flavors. The order of Grilled Chicken in Mushroom Sauce took this cut of poultry to a good place. Moist chicken slices are smothered with a rich and slightly woodsy brown sauce that made it worthwhile mopping up with some bread; the sides of Pommes Purée and vegetables were also well-executed. My friend’s order of Seafood in Beurre Blanc was a revelation for him. The pieces of shrimp, lobster, and scallop were bathed in a rich and flavorful shallot and lobster-infused butter sauce that made my friend effusive throughout his meal. You can find well-executed meals here at a very reasonable price, and it is worthwhile dining al fresco watching the pedestrians stroll by.

Montreal, CanadaAh, we can’t get enough of this charming city every time we visit it. Just when we thought we had calculated enough days for our trip, we always felt a few more would have made it perfect. With such great food, amiable friends and strangers, and wonderful street life and eating ambience, it is hard to press the stop button and come back to the daily grind. But such wonderful experiences only allow us to continue with our trying lives while looking forward to returning to this beautiful respite again and again. With such wonderful gastronomic offerings, Montreal seems to make that call continuously to us, louder each time. We’re coming back soon; don’t worry!