San Francisco

After a chilling winter in the East Coast (it snowed in DC on the second day of my SF trip) and a two-year hiatus, I decided to spend my Spring Break holiday in one of my favorite cities, San Francisco.  It is definitely a big change of locale for me as its energy is totally different and refreshing from the East Coast vibe, who tends to get suffocating after a while. Besides the nicer weather and change of scenery, one thing I enjoy and look forward to is a wide variety of restaurants that can be attributed to the cosmopolitan feel of the city and the different culinary influences stemming from the various immigration groups that have landed in the Bay Area.  Without much further ado, here is a quick run down of places that I visited in one week.

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Since I was visiting my college buddy dating back to the first day of Graduate school in Maryland 24 years ago, he chose our first meal to celebrate his birthday at Cha Cha Cha in the Haight neighborhood.  This local chain has a few branches in the area and it serves up a menu that represents various Latino culinary traditions, or Pan Latino.  Our opener was the popular pickled seafood, Ceviche, that was brimming with small shrimp, bay scallops (the smaller ones), and squid.  The seafood morsels were sweet and tender, well pickled by the lime juice, and fragrant with some jalapeño pepper and cilantro.  A side of sweet plantains were as good as they get, accompanied by a smooth paste of refried black beans.  The seafood paella was rather decent with pieces of shrimp, tender pieces of fish and some mussels, embedded in some aromatic rice made yellow sans the pricey saffron threads.  However the Jerk Chicken was not close to any authentic version that I have savored – it was tasty but the name was a total misnomer.  Despite the last dish, this meal was a pretty good start to my gastronomic week.

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For his birthday dinner, my buddy chose Cafe Ethiopia in the Mission District.   Our orders arrived on a large enameled platter covered with the sourdough injera bread, topped by the various protein and vegetables.  I was quite impressed by the dishes since each was very tasty and held its distinctive flavor and character while setting themselves apart from each other.  The orders that impressed me most were the collard greens, the lentils, and the salmon dish that had moist chunks of the seafood covered by a tasty but not overpowering sauce.  An order of goat was a bit unfortunate as a bit more cooking would have made them less tough.  The extra pieces of injera bread were the perfect vehicle to scoop up the food and the accompanying sauces.  One of the guests exclaimed that this was the best Ethiopian food he has tasted in the Bay Area. and I must agree that it was as good as the ones found in the DC area replete with restaurants of this East African cuisine.

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Staying at the Haight district, I stumbled across this little dive serving Thai food – The Best of Thai Noodle.  I must say that such name tends to conjure up some suspicion, but I decided to give them a try for lunch.  I ordered the Combination Of Sliced Rare Beef, Beef Stew, And Beef Meatballs Noodle Soup since I was in the mood for such a noodle soup dish on a cool day.  The bowl arrived with strands of wide rice noodles swimming in a very rich fragrant soup filled with pieces of stewed beef pieces and beef meatballs.  With my first bite, I recognized the dish that I have had recently – Boat Market Noodle Soup.  Upon enquiring, the waitress confirmed my observation.  This bowl was as good as the one I had a few months back in Thai Square with the heady cassia and star-anise laced soup, the tender pieces of beef and meatballs, and the fresh noodles.  Looking at the menu, this small joint offers an amazing array of authentic dishes from this Southeast Asian tradition.  This establishment is definitely worth checking out despite its rather dingy appearance.

The Slanted Door

The Slanted DoorFor lunch the next day, I decided to go Vietnamese, and I stopped by the most reputed Vietnamese restaurant in the area located in the Embarcadero Ferry Terminal – The Slanted Door.  I had eaten at this establishment a few years back and I was looking forward to it again after the absence.  For the starter, I ordered some Chilled Wild Louisiana Gulf Shrimp.  Large pieces of shrimp came with sides of chili spiced cocktail sauce and a Thai basil aioli.  The shellfish were perfectly cooked and their sweetness in each bite was indicative of the freshness and quality, complemented by the irresistible sauces.  For the main course, I ordered the Grilled Pork Belly and Meatball Rice Vermicelli Noodles.  Basically this is the supped up version of the Bun Noodle Salad enhanced by large pieces of moist savory grilled meatballs, tender pieces of tasty pork belly, and pieces of the house Imperial Roll made with chunks of shrimp and ground pork- this was a hearty, satisfactory and flavor-packed bowl.

The Slanted DoorFor dessert, I couldn’t help but hone in on something whimsical listed on the menu despite feeling rather full after the above dishes – Lemongrass Cotton Candy.  A big cloud of this spun sugar arrived at my table that left me bug-eyed by the unexpected size – I guess I have not been to the local fair in a number of years.  When the dessert arrived, I slowly tore pieces away from it, with a bigger amount each time.  It is basically your typical cotton candy with a citrusy and slightly grassy lemongrass flavor that made this childhood favorite as irresistible to the now adult.  I literally had to stop myself from finishing the whole mass and I got the rest packed for home.  The meal at this Modern Vietnamese restaurant was worth every dollar spent with the high level of cooking, the artful presentation, and the authentic flavors that left me satisfied and dreaming of this gastronomic experience.  Btw, don’t forget the Lychee Ice Tea that made the perfect thirst quencher with the above dishes – exotic and refreshing at the same time.

Spicy Eggplant and Mushrooms.Golden Era Lemongrass "Chicken"

No where is better to try Vegan/Vegetarian cuisine than in the West Coast, and I returned to my and BFF’s favorite establishment- Golden Era Vegan Restaurant.  A vegetable dish that we have enjoyed and always ordered is Spicy Eggplant Mushroom.  Pieces of purple skinned Asian eggplant are paired with fresh button mushrooms, crunchy carrots, slivers of onion, and large pieces of green onions, all coated in a slightly sweet spicy sauce that brings all the different elements together harmoniously.  A must order is the house’s most popular dish, and rightfully so – Lemongrass Deluxe.  Pieces of mock chicken have been spiced up by a heady amount of shaved lemongrass and a dry spicy sauce, ringed by crispy bright green broccoli florets that make the perfect mild foil to the herbacious spicy “chicken” bits.  The platter comes with a generous amount of the protein, and this dish always delivers.  I have spent days dreaming before coming to the West to savor this vegan delight.  Word of warning: it is located in the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood but walking distance from downtown, hence the importance of having a dining companion with you for the walk.

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Suzu Japanese Noodle HouseWith a large population of Japanese descent, it would be amiss to not savor authentic Japanese cuisine in Japantown, located in the Fillmore neighborhood.  That is where I headed to for lunch one day to savor some Japanese Ramen noodles in Suzu Japanese Noodle House recommended by my college buddy.  Agedashi was the first order, consisting of tofu chunks that have been fried in a light batter, sitting on a pool of dashi sauce and topped with a piece of eggplant tempura, grated daikon and fresh ginger, and slivers of bonito flakes and dried seaweed.  This was a bowl of clean pure flavors that just left a serene contentment within.  For the main course, I ordered Spicy Pork and Egg in Spicy Broth Ramen. The bowl came with a mound of al dente egg Ramen noodles topped by a single sliver of roast pork (meat as a garnish, not main course), half a boiled egg, pieces of bamboo shoot pickle, raw spinach leaves, and topped by a mound of white leek strips.  The soup was a fairly rich meat stock spiced up by some slightly smoky chili paste.  The bamboo spoon to help slurp the soup added a level of authenticity in addition to the small diner that whisked me away to a cramped eatery in the Far East.  Be prepared to be patient for a table in this small establishment, but it is worth the wait.

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_6002278.jpgOne of my favorite parts of the city is North Beach where many Italian eateries can be found.  Caffe Greco is a spacious deli that serves Paninis, and my order made with Prosciutto ham, Mozzarella cheese, and Red Pepper was the perfect afternoon bite with the salty meat, mild and slightly creamy cheese, and the pickled red pepper slivers that added the acid touch and herbal oregano flavors to the airy pieces of pressed Foccacia bread that held the fillings together.  My companion’s sandwich made with turkey and large ribbons of zucchini was equally successful, albeit milder in flavor.  The accompanying side salad was well-made with the right amount of balsamic vinaigrette coating the healthy mix of a variety of lettuces, making the lunch complete. To chase the bites down, we ordered the house special, Grecco Sunrise.  A tall glass of Orangina is spiked with a shot of cherry syrup which turned it orangey red at the lower half, hence its name.  It was the perfect sip with our sandwiches in this part of town that evokes the Mediterranean.

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_6002353.jpgFor dinner, my college mate invited me for some raw seafood at Sushi Time in the Castro area.  Located in a small mall, this cramped space has only a few tables along with the sushi bar, and when we got there, a line was waiting for a table.  An opener of a Seaweed Salad and a Cooked Spinach Salad were simple but tasty appetizers.  The Avocado Tuna Tartar was delectable with pieces of spicy tune paired with creamy avocado punctuated by pieces of fresh asparagus.  The pieces of sushi tasted clean and fresh, as good as most good sushi joints, and there was a good variety for the diner.  What stood out for us was a serving of Butterfish sashimi which exuded clean yet a rich unctuous texture and flavor.  The set menus are reasonable and priced competitively. Like the ramen eatery, it is worth the wait and the cramp space has that Japanese urban feel.
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I was the honored guest of a brunch hosted by a Facebook social group that I am a member of, and we met at Catch in the Castro neighborhood.  This spacious space serves American fare with a heavy emphasis on seafood.  What caught my attention was the Salmon BLT which came with an option of a simple salad, Ceaser salad, or french fries – where else can you find a seafood BLT but in Cali!  My sandwich came with perfect sautéed salmon fillets with a crispy exterior but moist inside, topped by crispy bacon and spicy arugula leaves, moistened by a citrus aioli, enclosed by pieces of crispy french baguette.  I really enjoyed this sandwich with the well cooked and well matched ingredients.  The side Caesar salad was creamy with the rich tangy dressing and shards of Parmesan cheese.  Everyone in the group seemed to enjoy their pasta or seafood dishes.  If only I could have tasted someone’s seafood soup that looked very temptingly rich and brimming with pieces of the sea.

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For my last meal before heading to the airport, we walked up to Cole Valley to La Boulange (not Le Boulanger).  This is a local chain that has branches in many parts of town, serving up French pastries, meals, and drinks. My mini sandwich of Smoked Salmon was excellent with the quality fish paired with a slathering of cream cheese and bits of red onion and green chives sandwiched by the well-made roll.  An order of Almond Croissant hit the right spot with the short flakiness of its dough (not stretchy elastic) sweetened by the rich almond paste filling and accentuated by a plethora of toasted almond slivers on top – it is one of the best almond croissants I have tasted in a long time.  My friend’s French Toast was decadent, consisting of a round sponge cake dipped in an eggy custard (real eggs) and cooked gently to produce a light ethereal version of this breakfast staple, washed down by a decent “bol” of roasted Cafe au Lait.  For my flight home, I took out a Walnut Baguette with Prosciutto and Figs, which was an interesting tasty combination.  A dessert of Lemon Custard Turnover was the perfect flaky pastry with the rich sweet lemony filling that made me wish I had another order – it definitely sweetened the long-haul home.  Now, I see why reviewers give this chain an overwhelming thumbs-up, and deserving so.

Ah, San Francisco – The city of Beauty and Great Eats! Here is my photo essay of the city: San Francisco

Huong Viet

Huong VietThis must be some bad economic times that we are going through.  Uncertainty seems to hover over the housing market, the stock market, the job market, a looming sequestration, and undoubtedly the restaurant business.  More than a handful of restaurants that I have reviewed have folded up since I started a year ago.  To make matters worse, both Vietnamese restaurants on my blog have shut their doors, one after nearly 15 years of business, and the other just a mere 8 months.  As you may have read about my elusive search for a good Vietnamese eatery near me and in DC, this series of events was quite a blow.

With such daunting news in  mind, I approached my trusty Vietnamese barber and asked her for a reliable recommendation.  She pointed me to Eden Center, in the Seven Corners neighborhood of Fairfax, VA, where there is a confluence of Vietnamese business that populate that rather expansive plaza.  This was one place that I used to visit quite often to savor some good cooking when the Four Sisters Restaurant ran their business there before moving further out to the boondocks.   After their move, there was little cause to visit that area except when the occasional taste for steamed tofu with ginger syrup propelled me to drive the nearly 30 miles to terra incognito, as it seems that way to me.   But with a strong reference in mind, I coraled my dinner group on the eve of the Lunar New Year, or Tết in Vietnamese, and paid a visit to Huong Viet , a small eatery that has survived all these years since my visit there nearly 20 years ago.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Walking into the establishment, the decor and the set up are not as plush or creative as most modern restaurants, and the regularly spaced long and short tables do bring to mind a nice clean cafeteria.  After a short wait outside in the cold, we were shown to our long table that accommodated my party of five.   Any feeling of doubt or hesitancy was immediately erased by a sense of assurance brought about by the busyness of the restaurant and the number of Vietnamese-speaking customers in the place. With that thought in mind, I plunged into the menu and quickly ordered some common appetizers.  The Summer Rolls came with soft rice crepe paper wrapped around a filling of perfectly cooked moist rice vermicelli noodles, fresh sweet shrimp, mild roast pork, crisp lettuce, fragrant mint leaves, and finished with a long strand of pungent Asian chive.  But what tied all these disparate elements together was the dipping sauce.  This restaurant’s version had only a bare hint of hoisin unlike other versions that overwhelms the palate with its flavor.  Mixed in it was a peanut sauce that made it rich and nutty, and its unique balance pointed towards it being house-made rather than store-bought.  This was a good fresh bite.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls/Cha GioWe also ordered the counterpart to the above – Fried Spring Roll or CHẢ GIÒ.  When it arrived at the table, I noticed a few variations from the norms commonly found in other places.  First, the large bubbles on the fried skin indicated that it was made in a traditional fashion with Vietnamese rice crepe paper and not with Chinese spring roll sheets that are commonly used these days.  The second was that it was cut into two before it was deep-fried, which intrigued me even further.   Sheer hunger or delectable food can produce a certain suspension of analysis of thought as I honestly don’t recall much from this dish.  All I remember was that the stuffing tasted very moist and savory encased by a crispy shell, and these bites disappeared quickly among my friends who snatched them up while piping hot.  The side sweet and salty fish sauce was adequate but not as memorable as the expensive elixir served in the defunct Green Papaya restaurant.   However, this dish was worth a moment of relapse during dinner.

Young Lotus Root Salad

Another common appetizer found in this Southeast Asian cuisine is Young Lotus Root Salad.  Strands of cooked lotus roots have been mixed with pieces of pork and whole shrimp, lightly seasoned by the ubiquitous sweet and salty fish sauce.  Wow, I could barely get a bite of this because it was ferociously attacked by my companions, and deservedly so.  The pieces of lotus were perfectly cooked while maintaining its characteristic light crunch along with its savoriness developed from being marinated.  The sweet shrimp and moist pork provided the unctuous notes to the mild root, while the crushed peanuts and fried shallot rings added the nuttiness and dark flavors to the clean mild tasting salad.  The rounds of addictive shrimp crackers provided some textural interest as well as serving as the perfect scoopers for this melange.  This was definitely a hit for all of us and we should have ordered another serving of it.

Riceflour Pancake/Banh Xeo

For our main courses, we ordered a quartet of dishes.  The first was a classic Vietnamese dish found in any reputable restaurant – Bánh Xèo.  This stuffed crepe dish literally means “sizzling cake” consisting of a rice flour crepe stuffed with pieces of pork, cooked shrimp and a heaping of cooked bean sprouts.  The crepe had a hint of coconut milk and it was quite crispy, however, not rich or crispy enough for my taste, compared to the fabulous version in The Green Papaya.  Like most versions, the crepe is underseasoned for it is the sweet and salty fish sauce that imparts the necessary seasoning to this very mild dish.  Once my companions figured how to attack the dish, they were enjoying every bite of it.  But I could not help but reminiscence the rich delectable version of the aforementioned closed restaurant.

Shakey Beef

While waiting outside, an acquaintance of one of my dining companions recommended that we order Shakey Beef.  The name was odd enough for me and I had never come across a dish with such name.  The order arrived with pieces of cubed beef along with some onion and green pepper squares, plain and assuming.  The first bite revealed a personality beyond its unassuming looks.  The beef was tossed and seared on high heat in the wok, judging by pieces of caramelized bits, while maintaining a tender medium-rare inside.  Surprisingly, every bite tasted well seasoned and very savory from what tastes like soy sauce, bits of garlic, and a hint of sugar that brought the flavors to another level.   This was a truly successful dish for all of the diners and I enjoyed every beefy bite.

Shrimp with VegetablesTo bring some balance to the meat dishes, we ordered Shrimp with Vegetables.  Pieces of celery, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and baby corn are paired with pieces of large shrimp in this dish.  The sweet tender shrimp made the perfect foil to the pieces of sweet al dente pieces of vegetables, while the mushroom adds some earthiness and the baby corn some young sweetness.  What brought all the elements together was the rather rich sauce packed with garlic pieces flavored with oyster sauce and thickened with corn starch.  Although it was a rather light dish, the savory sauce made it seem richer, and it was worth ordering this vegetable seafood dish.  Another hit among my dining group.

Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken

No visit to taste this Southeast Asian cuisine should have a lemongrass dish amiss from the dining table, and we honed on Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken.  The plate arrived with chucks of chicken thigh cooked with large pieces of sweet yellow onions, swimming in a shallow pool of brown sauce.  What truly made this two-ingredient dish delectable and successful was the sauce that was packed with the citrusy lemongrass paired with the seafood salty fish sauce with a tinge of sweetness from the caramel that rounded off the flavors. The pieces of chicken thigh was not the mild breast version so as to stand up to the punchy sauce while adding the necessary body along with the sweet and pungent onion.  Even when the morsels were gone, I was lapping up every drop of sauce with bits of rice as I could not get enough of the sauce that transported me to Indochina.  Another must order here for sure!

Vietnamese Drink Dessert

Despite feeling content with the above dishes, I was curious about the unique Vietnamese sweet servings.  There was not much in terms of solid desserts with the exception of Caramel Flan but the menus listed a list of sweet drinks with bits of “stuff” that are commonly eaten by the locals.  My glass came with a concoction of whole red beans, sweet corn, crushed peanuts, and bits of green agar-agar jelly.  The sweetening agent was a syrup consisting of a mixture of brown sugar and rich coconut milk.  Upon mixing the various elements, things did not look very appetizing at first, but with the first mouthful, it was a revelation of flavors and textures.  Every element spoke for itself: nuttiness from the peanuts, sweetness from the corn, starchiness from the red beans, molasses sweetness from the brown sugar, and vegetal creaminess from the coconut milk.  The green jelly did not add any flavor at all but a jellybean-like texture consistency to the bite, which a couple of my friends found a bit disconcerting – LOL.  Before I knew it, most of my dining companions were partaking in this sweet dish, and we finished it con mucho gusto.

Huong VietComing back to Huong Viet for me was like the return of the prodigal son.   When in doubt, do what the Romans do, or as in this case, what the Vietnamese do.  Thanks to my barber’s infallible suggestion, I’m glad to have made the long trek to Eden Center to taste what has always been there all these years – proper delectable Vietnamese dishes that wowed my dining group even days after our visit.  Never mind the inattentive service at times and the bare ambience.  But what makes up for the shortcomings is the main reason to haul oneself there – the impressive dishes.  Note to diner – they only accept cash but we walked out of there with barely with a dent made since it was around $20/person.   With such good cooking and low prices, I would easily do the 30-mile drive.

Huong Viet on Urbanspoon

Vietnam Palace

Note: Unfortunately, this establishment has closed down.

The hunt for a decent Vietnamese restaurant serving more than just Pho noodles is like searching for the culinary Holy Grail. In the past, my friends and I used to visit Eden Center, a confluence of Vietnamese businesses in the heart of the immigrant community in Seven Corners, VA, to relish in the delectable offerings in our favorite eatery. However, it has moved further away into the boonies, and according to my Vietnamese hair stylist, it is now catering to a more American palate. In replacement, I discovered another eatery, Green Papaya, but to my dismay it folded up a couple of months later after being in business for over a decade. Another favorite haunt in DC also met the same fate after struggling in a part of town that saw gentrification moving slower that it would have liked. With all the Vietnamese noodle joints around me, I was nearly about to resign to  my fate of settling for only this type of offering, pho real.

Around the beginning of this year, I noticed some renovations taking place in a store located in a strip mall near my favorite Costco. As I passed by it a number of times, I was anxiously waiting for the storefront sign to be put up so I could ascertain what type of cuisine it was going to serve. In May, I was thrilled to see its large name – finally a full-fledged Vietnamese restaurant a few miles down the road from me. I couldn’t wait for the Open sign to glow for my first visit, and I even stopped in and asked about their opening day.

Vietnam Palace

One Sunday, I walked into Vietnam Palace eagerly anticipating my first meal there. However, a gentleman quickly told me that it was not officially open but only to invited guests. However, another man appeared from the kitchen and asked me to take a seat as one of the guests. Since that first warm welcome, I have paid them a few more visits before doing this write-up.

Jelly, Longan, and Lotus Seed DrinkOn the first visit when I was treated so graciously, I knew I was entering into a place different from the other Vietnamese establishments that I had visited. This was immediately evident from the drink that was placed on my table without my ordering. It is listed as “Longan in Syrup” in the drinks section of the menu. It comprises of a slightly sweet drink mixed with bits of agar-agar jelly, reconstituted dried longan fruit, and lotus or longan seeds. I was amazed by the combination of ingredients and flavors, reminiscent of a similar concoction that my grandmother used to prepare to cool the body down during the hot dry season in tropical Asia. The different elements in the sweet liquid made it taste more like dessert than a drink. This is definitely a different offering than the usual but a satisfying thirst quencher.

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Durian SmoothieAmong the usual drink choices of Vietnamese coffee, Lemonade and Soda Water, and Avocado Smoothie, there is another unexpected offering – Durian Smoothie. When I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to get my hands on a tall glass of it. Mine literally was filled to the brim and I had to quickly take a sip before it started to trickle down the sides. It was rich, slightly sweet, and ice-cold, packed with the distinctive and pungent flavors of the custard-like Durian fruit. It brought me back to my past summer trip to Malaysia when I got my fill of the fresh fruit that overwhelmed my taste buds with its unique pungent flavor. This smoothie had a similar effect on me without the strong aftertaste that the fresh fruit leaves. What a good alternative to the real thing, especially in this part of the world!

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Vietnamese Spring RollsThe first bite I took in this establishment was on a Spring Roll that you will find in most Vietnamese eateries. This rendition was as good as you would find anywhere else with its light and flaky wrap, a tasty filling that is made with wood fungus and carrot, minced pork and shrimp, and fine bean thread noodles that make up the customary stuffing. But what sets it apart is its accompanying fish sauce that woke up my senses immediately by the smooth refined flavor that you don’t find in other establishments. It reminded me of the fore mentioned closed down restaurant, Green Papaya, whose fish sauce tasted like a prized elixir. With the flavors lingering in my mouth, I knew that I have discovered a place where attention is paid to the details.

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Sweet and Sour Shrimp SoupAnother opener that we tried on a couple of visits is the Sweet and Sour Soup (Cahn Lau) that was part of the set course dinner.  Pieces of fish or whole shrimp are cooked in a light broth along with pieces of tomato, bean sprouts, pineapple, whole okra and celery.  The soup has a unique combination of sweet from sugar and the sour piquancy from the pieces of pineapple which I enjoyed quite a bit.  The pieces of vegetable were perfectly cooked with the okra slightly firm and not slimy, bean sprouts still turgid but not raw, and the pieces of seafood plump and moist.  The sprinkling of Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram) adds the herbal fragrance along with some caramelized shallots that brought another level of complexity to this rather simple soup.  This light yet tasty soup pointed to a direction of Vietnamese cuisine that I had not savored before, which not only was pleasing to my senses but also peaked my gastronomic curiosity.

Chicken Pho Noodles

Beef Pho NoodlesNo respectable Vietnamese restaurant will have Pho noodles amiss from its menu, and this is the case with Vietnam Palace. But instead of the usual bowl of beef noodles on my first visit, mine came with strips of chicken amidst large chunks of daikon root. The mild root was tender yet savory from having absorbed all the flavors from the rich broth, a clear soup, clean in flavor, sweet without the customary use of MSG, and I could distinguish the distinctive spices used to make the key element in the bowl: cassia bark (Asian cinnamon) and star-anise. On another visit, the beef version came with paper-thin discs of raw meat that cooked quickly in that wonderful broth. Large pieces of green onion and fine rings of sweet onion added the mild pungency that complemented the rather sweet broth. Getting to know the owner, he told me that the broth changes in the amount of spices according to the time of the year – more cassia and star-anise in the winter time. This is definitely not your everyday bowl of Pho noodle.

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo HueAnother bowl of noodle that shouldn’t be overlooked is one that you would probably not find in other Pho establishments – Bo Bun Hue. The bowl is covered with round long rice noodles, bits of beef, and sweet onions, all enveloped by a spicy beef broth made fragrant with lemongrass and reddish from some chili that is the basis of this noodle dish. The pieces of lean meat are joined by cooked skin, hunks of cartilage (a common source of protein in that part of the world), and squares made from congealed blood – this is not a dish for everyone especially for the squeamish. However, what I enjoy about the dish is the level of uncompromising authenticity along with that fragrant and fiery broth as well as the sprinkling of herbaceous Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram). The sides of fermented shrimp paste and dried chili paste add to the experience and its unique flavors. This is a must order for the adventurous especially if you are looking for a noodle dish beyond the usual Pho.

Egg Noodle with Vegetables and Seafood

Another noodle dish that we have ordered a few times, albeit in a less soupy state, is Egg Noodle with Vegetables and Seafood.  Dried egg noodles have been parboiled and cooked with brocoli, cauliflower, carrots, whole shrimp, fish balls, and shiitake mushrooms.   The noodles were still al dente, the vegetables cooked similarly and still fresh tasting, the seafood sweet and moist, and the sauce flavorful and light that was effective enough to coat the pasta.  What I enjoyed most was the generous amount of meaty shiitake mushrooms that added a hit of boskiness and a depth of flavor to this satisfying dish.  A good sprinkling of biting pepper on the top was the finishing touch that titillated the taste buds, mine at least.

Pork Chop, Shredded Pork, Egg Quiche and Rice

In addition to noodle dishes, Vietnam Palace has an extensive list of rice dishes that I don’t usually see in the usual eatery.  On one occasion, I ordered Charbroiled Pork Chop, Shredded Pork, Egg Quiche on Steamed Broken Rice.  A large piece of lightly seasoned Pork Chop is cooked with a slightly sweet and peppery coating until slightly brown yet remaining still quite moist.  The accompanying quiche was something that I had not had before; bits of minced pork were mixed with egg white and topped by a mixture made with egg yolk.  I found it quite tasty and amazing slightly spongy and rather light, aided by perfect seasoning and well-timed cooking.  The other side of Shredded Pork was equally interesting but not necessarily in the same direction as the Quiche.  It is cooked pork skin that has been shredded and mixed with toasted rice flour and seasoning.  The texture was a bit off-putting by its soft chewiness along with a slight fermented flavor – definitely something authentic yet one needs getting used to.  Mostly, I appreciate the restaurant’s offering of set rice platters that are not usually found in most eateries.

Caramelized FishA couple of dishes beyond the rice and noodle dishes were tasted and are worth mentioning.  Caramelized Fish comes served in a clay pot swimming in a dark chocolaty sauce coating the fish morsels.   The basic flavor components are made from caramelized sugar that provides the slight sweetness and the slight burnt flavor, and the fish sauce that injects the brininess and a breath of ocean into the sauce.  The pieces of fish were fresh and still quite moist.  However, I thought that the use of fish sauce was a bit heavy-handed which overpowered the subtle caramel element.  Upon bringing this to the waiter/owner’s attention, he agreed with me and quickly joked that he was going to fire the cooks, notably his parents in the kitchen.  I felt a bit guilty for mentioning this but I’m not shy to help an establishment fix their faux pas.  Another try of this dish is planned for the future.

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Sauteed GoatBack to my first “invitation” to this establishment.  After having sated myself with their wonderful dishes, the owner mentioned that they are offering a family special cooked only on the weekends – Sautéed Goat.  When it arrived on my table, the waft that reached my nose instantly told me that this was no ordinary dish.  Pieces of goat have been stewed with onion, curry powder, and coconut milk.  In addition to the spice elements and rich coconut, it is heavily infused with some heady lemongrass that adds that Southeast Asian zing, along with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and herbaceous Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram).  A thick slice of French bread made the perfect sopping tool for that rich and flavor-packed sauce.  Even though the pieces goat were a bit bony, which it tends to be, the bits of flesh were quite tender and well-flavored.  This restaurant never ceases to amaze me with the authenticity of flavors and each visit turned into an adventure into this Southeast Asian cuisine.

Vietnam Palace is a restaurant worth trekking into the Maryland suburbs for anyone who is salivating for well-made dishes representing this Southeast Asian culture, beyond the noodle bowls that have over saturated the various neighborhoods as well as our taste buds.  I still miss some dishes that are not served there, namely Grilled Lemongrass Beef and Salt Pepper Seafood that I used to relish in the closed fore mentioned eateries.  However, what this place does well compensates for the missing dishes, and the dishes have broadened my horizon on this wonderful cuisine.  Who would think that such gastronomic adventure could be found in a quiet strip mall off the beaten path.  It is worth checking this place out!

Vietnam Palace on Urbanspoon

Green Papaya

Note: Unfortunately, this establishment has closed down.

My undergraduate college days in Memphis must have had quite an impression on me for it was in that Mid-South city that I was introduced to many new experiences at a youthful age of 17 years old (also see last blog on Mediterranean Kabob). One of them would take place quite regularly next to a dark parking lot behind a drive-in theater screen – yes, this was the early 80’s. That was the location of one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in the city which my brother, future sister-in-law, and I would pay numerous visits in order to taste this Southeast Asian cuisine that shares similar notes with the foods we grew up on. This was also the era in which Thai restaurants were not in vogue yet, which may seem unimaginable these days. In this little dive, I was introduced to its traditional dishes and to the exquisiteness of Vietnamese cuisine. A visit there was always a soul-satisfying cheap eat, especially for us money-strapped students.

When I arrived in the DC area for my graduate school in music, there were a plethora of Vietnamese eateries in the metro area due to the high number of immigrants that established themselves in the metro area. Not far from the university that I was attending were a couple of Pho Beef Noodle shops that I frequented often, especially during the cold months. I had heard of a shopping plaza in Falls Church, VA where many good restaurants were located, and over the next few years, I would visit a couple of these restaurants and savored truly authentic and delectable dishes in which a mostly Vietnamese crowd was seen enjoying. However, a month ago, a few friends and I paid a visit to one of these eateries in Eden Center (or Little Saigon as I call it) and we had a quite disappointing experience. To make matters worse, one of our favorite joints had moved further out to the boonies, and the word on the street was that its kitchen’s cooking has been adapted to the non-Vietnamese clientele in their new locale. Another Vietnamese restaurant in the city closed down a couple of years ago which brought a collective moan among the dinner group.

I had known about Green Papaya in the Bethesda Row area for a number of years, and the reviews that I had read had been quite glowing. However, Bethesda has been a bit of a culinary terra incognito for me, since it is located on the other side of the beltway and some members of my dinner group are, hmmm, geographically challenged, thus making a trip out there close to impossible. But one Friday, a friend and I were the only ones available, and with a coupon (yes, those dreaded things again, LOL) as an incentive, we headed out to the land of the unknown. We had a challenge paying for the parking since we did not have enough change, and we had to register our credit card on the phone in order to pay the meter. When we got to the restaurant, we were slightly frazzled by the parking hurdle, but stepping into the low-light ambience, we quickly settled into the extensive menu and the luxurious yet soothing environment. Perusing it, I recognized many traditional dishes along with modern renditions of recognizable flavors. Since it was my first visit, I decided to stick with the familiar.

Grilled Minced Shrimp on Sugarcane

The meal started with a couple of traditional appetizers – Chai Tom Cuom. It is minced shrimp wrapped around fresh sugarcane strips as skewers and then grilled. The grilled shrimp paste was moist from a hint of coconut milk, smokey from the grilling, and delicate from its light seasoning. It was stuffed inside a rice wrapper along with rice vermicelli and fresh lettuce, with a delicate peanut sauce and chili sauce on the side for extra flavoring. This was one of the best fresh wraps that I have tasted, and I was constantly marvelling about the delicateness of the different textures and flavors. Chewing on the sugarcane skewers was a great accompaniment and flavor partner to the rolls which were made rather mild by the grilling. After devouring this appetizer, I knew that there were more good things to come.

Green Papaya Salad

The other opener was a dish that I have eaten in many places – Green Papaya Salad. Thin julienned strips of green papaya are joined by strips of chicken, fragrant basil and mint leaves, crunchy fried shallot rings, all married together by a cocktail of fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. Pieces of delicate fish crackers surround the mound and they provide the crispy platform to serve and eat the salad. This was truly refreshing and flavorful, whose success is mainly attributed to the well-balanced and delicate salad sauce – there are no single element that is vying for attention in this concoction. Here, we see the kitchen’s masterful hand and the establishment’s use of high quality in its ingredients, especially in the fish sauce that I was straight-sipping like fine whiskey. I could not get enough of this dish but I had to make sure I had room for the rest of the meal.
Banh Xeo

Banh Xeo has always been a favorite of mine since the Memphis days. It is basically a stuffed pancake, a vestige from Vietnam’s French colonial days. This restaurant’s version had the customary crispy golden exterior, a moist interior, and a filling of shrimp, chicken, onion and bean sprouts. What makes this rendition stand out is the batter that has been enriched by coconut milk and the soufflé-like interior which was a contrast to the crunchy top. Flavor enhancers on the side were fragrant basil leaves and a heavenly elixir made with high-quality fish sauce that provided the necessary saltiness to the slightly bland pancake – this pairing is obligatory, hence the deliberately underseasoned batter. Large pieces of lettuce leaves provided the crispy and cooling element to this wonderful dish.

Caramelized Chicken

A familiar dish served in many Vietnamese restaurants is a Caramelized dish, and in my case, made with chicken (Ga Kho Ghung). Its sauce is made with some caramelized sugar that tempers the pungent and salty fish sauce. This restaurant’s version had the right proportion of the slightly sweet and the brininess, made successful in large part due to its high-quality fish sauce. The pieces of chicken were very moist and tender and this dish kept begging for more of my attention. I must admit that this has been probably the best caramelized dish I have ever tasted.

Grilled Lemongrass Beef

My dining companion’s choice was a perennial selection, Lemongrass Beef – Bun Bo Nuong. It is usually served with cold vermicelli noodles but upon request, it came with some hot steaming rice. Wow! The beef was so tender, an indication of the high-quality meat, and it was packed with the lemongrass flavor with a hint of the grill smokiness. A topping consisting of fried green onions, toasted peanuts, and crispy fried shallots added more flavor and texture to the dish. I guess I should not have complained about my friend’s order this time, judging by my effusive remarks.

Unequivocally, this is the best Vietnamese food that I have eaten in the metro area. The whole dining experience was indeed pleasant and warm, from the lush beautiful ambience to the efficient amiable service. But the true star is the kitchen’s expert hand in producing the best dishes that I have ever savored of this Southeast Asian cuisine . I cannot wait to pay it another visit to try the owner’s recommendations of the Caramelized Chilean Sea Bass and Lemongrass Rack of Lamb. Green Papaya is most definitely a restaurant worth paying a visit and dealing with the parking issues – perhaps my next visit will be on the weekend, when parking is free.

Green Papaya on Urbanspoon