Tay Giang – Special Combination Phỡ Bowl

Tay Giang is one of those weird Vietnamese places that tries to do both: be a noodle shop by day and an upmarket family-dinner establishment by night. I’ll have to catch dinner there sometimes since their menu carries a lot of lesser known items.

Unlike most phỡ shops with their flourescent lighting and plastic tables, Tay Giang reminded me of a 2-3 stars hotel in Vietnam. The same kind of obvious care shown to the paint job, wood trimming and white tablecloths. The same misplaced aesthetic sense (or was it cheapness) for the color scheme, artworks and fake flowers.

But I don’t go to Vietnamese restaurants for the ambience.

The special combination phỡ was large, I have to give them that. And I was pleasantly surprised — the soup wasn’t bad. Ok, so there were copious amounts of onions, a big no, to sweeten the broth, but any MSG thrown in was subtle when compared to many of the places in San Francisco. It was clear enough, sweet enough and aromatic. The meat supply was diverse: raw, brisket, tripe, meatballs, etc. The noodles were al dente. The garnish could have been better, but I didn’t expect much from a place in the Bay. The few cilantro and bean sprounts were enough for me.

All in all, Tay Giang did the pho well. I’ll be back once I make my rounds… and maybe even drop by for dinner.

September 22, 2007 at 9:17 pm Leave a comment

Bún Riêu / “Simmer Vermicelli” – Crab Meat Noodle Soup

One of my favorite soups involves crab meat, shrimp meat, egg and noodles. What’s there not to like? Erm, I should mention the shrimp paste. It’s basically fermented shrimp that’s pounded to to hell — a sickly grey/purple color. Many people will think it’s an evil spiteful thing but I seem to have an affinity for over-ripened and rotted items. A note of caution, once you open the jar, refrigerate it double-quick… for the sake of your olfactory-sensitive buddies and clothes.

Most Vietnamese places in the States don’t offer this soup — and if they did, they either half ass it or add crap to it that most purists would gag over. The reason? The soup is a specialty of North Vietnam, and most of the diaspora hails from South Vietnam, where heartier soups are the norm. I’ve had many versions where people add bologna and whole shrimps to this and it just breaks my heart.

When I was in Hanoi, my landlady made one of the best batches ever, but unless you live in Vietnam, that recipe is not duplicable: you’d need live paddy crabs and a couple of other things…

Here’ I’ll be using my mom’s method (except for the copious amounts of MSG), accounting for what you can purchase in the US markets and it’s pretty close to the original version:

Bún riêu ingredients

Ingredients (4 bowls):

  • 8 oz. lumped Crab meat
  • 8 oz. dried shrimp
  • 5 oz. crab paste (in lieu of the real ‘orange stuff’)
  • 16 oz. chicken broth
  • 1/3 cup of ketchup
  • 5 cups water
  • 4 tbspn of olive oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 4 shallots
  • 1 large beefsteak tomato
  • 1 bún riêu bullion cube (optional)
  • Rau (herbs) – optional cause but veggies are always good, I suppose:
    • Hứng (mint)
    • Kinh giới (Vietnamese balm)
    • Ngò (cilantro)
    • Thơm (sorrel)
    • Răm (Vietnamese coriander)
    • Diced lettuce
    • Diced scallions
  • 1 lime
  • Vermicelli noodles
  • Salt and pepper
  • Mắm tôm – shrimp paste
  • Siracha

bun-rieu-bowl.jpg

Preparation:

  1. Soften the noodles to al dente: boil noodles and drain. Set aside. The next steps is to make the fillings.
  2. Soak dried shrimp in hot water for 15 minutes. Remove and pound into a paste in mortar and pestle. If you’re ghetto like me and don’t want to get a mortar and pestle, just dice the shrimp into small enough bits and use a jar and a bowl to smush it.
  3. Dice shallots and add to shrimp paste.
  4. Add crab meat into shrimp and shallots mix.
  5. With olive oil, brown the crab/shrimp/shallots mix on a frying pan. Add in crab paste and ketchup (my little secret there — gives the mixture great coloring). Set aside in a bowl.
  6. Add the four eggs to the CSS mix. Add a dash of salt and pepper. Stir well. Should look a little like pre-cooked hamburger patties.
  7. Slice tomato into large chunks (I quarter mine).
  8. Boil the chicken broth and water. Add in the bullion cube.
  9. Using a ladle, scoop the CSS mix and gentle lower it into the boiling broth. The key is to keep the CSS mix together to form lump of crab & shrimp goodness. Repeat until you’re done with the mix.
  10. Add in tomato chunks. You want to serve the soup with them a little firm.
  11. Garnish with scallions

Serve it like just like that. You can add the herbs, Siracha sauce, shrimp paste and lime to taste. There should be a good balance of sourness, spiciness, zest and bitterness (from the herbs), saltiness and sweetness of the broth and crab meat.

September 9, 2007 at 5:09 pm Leave a comment

Sandwich Showdown

I thought it’d be appropriate to start off with a review of bánh mì thịt (i.e. BMT aka Vietnamese deli sandwich aka “meat bread”)

Here are some quick take-aways when it comes to figuring out a place for a BMT. Aside from gi-normous places like Lee’s in the Little Saigons of Alief and Westminster, it’s good (not bad) that the place is:

  • small, family-run
  • crowded
  • funny smelling
  • a little bit on the shady side

Contender #1: Baguette Express.
Tenderloin, San Francisco

This wee place had a fresh lime-green coat of paint and bright McDonald’s style menus. There was a good selection of sandwiches (12), from the combination to more unusual ones like cá mồi (sardines) and chả cá (fish cake). Shredded chicken seems to be popular out here on the West Coast. Unfortunately, there were the tell-tale signs: a single dude loafing around and a stack of spring rolls as the only ‘extra’ offering.

baguette-express-storefront.jpg

The “combination special” was passable– if I was hungry and had only $3 to my name. The bread was too toasted. And the meats? My first bite met xá xíu, a BIG no-no and really a poor substitute for some of the more flavorful meats unique to Vietnam. If I wanted char-siu, I could have gone to a Chinese take-out. See my write-up for BMT basics. The pate was ‘meh’ and I unloaded most of the distracting jalapenos.

Baguette Express Combination

But I’m not going to dismiss this one, yet. I’ll try some of the other items next time, although I don’t have high hopes when the mainstay was so half-assed. Baguette Express: pretender. 2/5 stars.

Contender #2: Saigon Sandwiches
Tenderloin, San Francisco

A restaurant names says a lot. Give me a Pho #1 over fancy-pants Indochine any day. So it was with good precedent that I walked over to Saigon Sandwiches, a block down from Baguette Express.

Saigon Sandwich Storefront

The lines were long, the counter piled high with assorted sweets, appetizers and drinks. Two middle aged ladies worked in silence except for occasional outbursts of orders. The menu was limited — only 6 varieties of sandwiches — but they were doing brisk business.

Saigon Sandwich Interior

The sandwich itself? Pretty darned good. The pate was rich, with a strong smoky flavor, and the meats, while not exactly traditional, didn’t commit cultural suicide. The best part was the bread. A little crusty, but very moist and chewy on the inside. The loaf was rounder than the usual baguette, but hey, so were the flavors. Verdict – Saigon Sandwiches is a contender. 4/5 stars.

September 8, 2007 at 5:20 pm Leave a comment

The first dish (hello!)

Hello! (fellow lover[ers] of food!) About me. I had a not-so-good day last week and all I wanted was a good pick-me-up meal. I walked down Market, was tempted to turn up to the Tenderloin, thought better of it because nattily dressed as I am, I didn’t want a trip to the pound-me-in-the-ass district, whatever they’re calling in now (TrendyLoin? What?). So I thought, hey, maybe Vietnamese. I was missing some of the mother country’s food, having been fattened and pampered for six months last year in Hà Nội. So I checked into this hole-in-the wall off Sixth Street. It looked promising enough — lots of people hunched over slurping soups and shoveling wok-seared meats into their mouths and so on….

Jesus have mercy, was I fantastically wrong! Boys and girls, do not frequent Tu Lan. It is a bad vile place. It is filled with Yelpers and people of whose skins are of pink and pale persuasions. The menu has fucking Julia whatshername on the cover as a patron, a recommender of the authentical-ness of the place. San Francisco, thou hast forsaken me.

You know what it was? It was a bunch of Chinese-Vietnamese dirty peddlers looking to make a quick buck on unsuspecting diners. They have violated the food and called it ‘good.’ I sat there, with my Campell’s beef stock phỡ, stewing/seething with anger. The clay pot pork thit kho was not clay pot but a stir-fried rendition with a generic brown sauce hunching over the sad wilted tofu (tofu, say what?). The deal breaker was that all the patrons filed out gushed with praise! Dirty hippies.

So that’s it. I can only take so many bad meals and knuckle-headed opinions on food. Here it is: my attempt to enlighten, divert and generally make transparent food establishments that try to cut corners, fake and cheat good paying customers out of their hard earned paychecks. No holds bar. I realize that a lot of people don’t know what good food ought to taste like.

What, say you? That it’s a matter of taste? Of course it is! Food either tastes good or bad. It is either authentic, or not. (Those categories can be mutually exclusive, by the way.) What it can’t be is dishonest.

So call it a backlash. Call it what you will. On with the eating! (I couldn’t take photos of the horrible-ness of the food so I posted what phỡ, ought to look like. Take notice Tu Lan scoundrels!)

September 6, 2007 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment


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