Showing posts with label Vietnamese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vietnamese. Show all posts

Monday, October 27, 2014

Van's Vietnamese

If you recently caught Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown escapades to Vietnam, you would've been introduced to Central Vietnam and a beloved special soup called bun bo hue. While pho has taken a cult-like following in the States, few have been introduced to its spicy and underrated counterpart. Bourdain even dubs it as "the greatest soup in the world." Looking back, I wish my surly sixteen year old self would have appreciated my family trip to the Hue region of Vietnam. Bourdain really put into perspective how unique and tasty the food from my culture and heritage is. The tiny plastic stools of street side cafes and honking of motorcycles as they pass by is now a distant memory but the flavors of my childhood lingers. As I grow older, I cherish those memories more and more as my mom and her cooking is 200 miles away. One soup that screams comfort food to me is bun bo hue, a spicy Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup. Of course mom makes a killer version but on a recent redemption trip to Van's Vietnamese for pho, I discovered my beloved soup on the menu.
Yes, you too can experience bun bo hue in Albany. It's not just any ole spicy soup, but rather a very rich and complex one. For reasons I don't know, bun bo literally translates to beef noodle soup but the stock highlights more of the pork flavor. It's made with a mix of pig's feet and ham hock slowly simmered with beef shank and flank steak, a touch of fermented shrimp paste, and scented with aromatic lemongrass.  Don't worry, as pungent and funky as shrimp paste can smell, it mellows out in the broth and lends another layer of flavor that sets this soup apart from pho. See that little pot on the left? It's a delightful medley of chiles, lemongrass, more shrimp paste, garlic, and spices. You're gonna want to add a few spoonfuls until the broth is bright and glowing red. 

You won't find exotic bits like blood cake here but for an authentic taste you will find pig's feet with slices of cha lua pork bologna and stewed meats. Like pho, you can add accoutrements to your liking. Instead of banana blossoms, you'll find shredded cabbage alongside fresh herbs and a wedge of lime. Personalize as you wish and get in there and slurp away this spicy noodle soup. Your soul will find so much satisfaction as you sweat away whatever toxins are in your body. 

As for the beef pho? It kind of takes a back seat to the bun bo hue noodle soup but has drastically improved in flavor since our last visit. We finally did the Capital Region pho rounds and even stopped by Pho Yum for comparison after much stubbornness. Now that Kim's Vietnamese is gone, Van's has stepped up in rank as the one of the better pho soups in the area. But what you're really going to want to order is the bun bo hue. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Saigon Pearl

As the weather cools down, there's nothing more satisfying than a hot bowl of pho. A few weeks ago, we were dead set on satisfying a craving at Kim's but to our surprise, it was closed for renovations. One week later we saw an Instagram from Bread and Honey that they were testing banh mi bread for a restaurant called Saigon Pearl located at the very same location as the former Kim's Vietnamese. Timing was perfect this weekend as my parents were in town and Saigon Pearl was officially opened for business. 

The newly renovated space was a scene out of Restaurant Impossible, with modern furnishings and a vibrant glass water fountain upon entry. We weren't quite sure whether it was an upgrade for Kim's until we tasted the pho broth. Each Vietnamese chef has their own unique recipe and much to our dismay, the broth was not the same. Leave it to my mom to find out that it was indeed under new ownership. Seasonings and spices were weak and the soup lacked the distinctive flavors of classic pho. While there were generous cuts of eye round, brisket, and meatballs, the soup was missing that rich, beefy flavor we always look for. Granted it was only day two of a brand-new restaurant, we're chalking it up to grand opening kinks.

Even though my parents just brought down Montreal banh mi sandwiches for us, we were too curious to pass up on the $5 Saigon Pearl banh mi. As a grand opening special, sandwiches were two for $5 and we went with choices of Vietnamese meatballs and bbq pork. I suspected that the bread was not quite Bread and Honey's as it was too short for a banh mi, not crusty like the usual loaves, and the crumb too soft. It's no Montreal banh mi but the filling was spot on. Both were very flavorful and the meatball in tomato sauce (xiu mai) was a welcomed banh mi option around here. We have high hopes for bun thit nuong noodle bowls with these kinds of flavors. As for banh mi, while it's not the bread we were hoping for, it's a good enough option for Albany. At least the pork banh mi still had familiar flavors with a schmear of pate with crunchy pickled veggies. A little toasting could go a long way if they're sticking to this bread but perhaps the perfect bread is still in the works. 

Whether it was a complimentary grand opening treat or not, I liked the basket of fried shrimp chips (banh phong tom) a la chips and salsa at Mexican joints that came before our entrees. We also got complimentary fried egg rolls and these were on par in flavor to my mom's and were quite tasty. Although we're sad to see Kim's go, it's nice to see another Vietnamese option in the Capital Region. I think Albany is ready for real Vietnamese flavors without muting authentic flavors. Here's to hoping the restaurant makes some adjustments.

+ Returning Bites: Banh Mi at Saigon Pearl

+ Returning BItes: Hu Tieu Kho Noodles

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Good Night Noodle 2.0

Good Night Noodle is officially open! What an exciting journey seeing Good Morning Cafe finally transformed to its Southeast Asian alter-ego. It's been many months since a sneak peak tasting in March and now everyone gets to experience Vietnamese food with a healthier twist. 

We've yet to make it up to Good Morning Cafe for breakfast but despite sharing the same space, its evening counterpart has a very intimate and inviting atmosphere, perfect for date night. The focus of Good Night Noodle is mainly on Vietnamese staples like pho noodle soup and summer rolls sprinkled with Thai favorites like pad thai and other Asian-inspired specials. While flavors are global, the ingredients echo Good Morning's mission to bring locally-sourced organic, fresh, and minimally processed ingredients to your plate. This includes farm-fresh veggies used in the summer rolls and grass-fed beef in the signature meatballs for your pho noodle soup. To boot, for each bowl of pho served, Good Night Noodle will give 25 cents toward the purchase of one pound of rice for the villagers of Poysomroung, their adopted community in Cambodia. Eat good, feel good, do good--it's that simple! 

Flavorwise, I've touched base on the pho before and Chef Linh has managed to improve on its flavor. We each got a bowl of the beef noodle pho. It's not the broth you're looking for at Kim's, Van's, or Saigon Spring but still has familiar flavor profiles. The aromatic soup has a natural beefy flavor with a clear, clean tasting broth that's elevated by the homemade meatballs.  The texture of the meatballs is unlike the ones you get elsewhere. I kind of missed the chewiness of the mass produced ones but the flavors made up for its Italian meatball-like texture. J missed the usual mix of sliced eye round and brisket but he most definitely approved this version. We both agreed that while not completely traditional, it's a welcomed version that's good and good for us. But if you need extra sodium kick like we did, ask for the premium Red Boat fish sauce. Pho is all about adding accoutrements to your liking including a dash of sriracha and Linh's homemade hoisin sauce,  which by the way tastes ten times better than the jarred stuff. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Creo Restaurant

Do our eyes deceive us? Banh mi AND poutine under one roof? The two dishes we live and die for were both on the lunch menu at Creo Restaurant. It's like they were meant just for us. I was always intimidated by Creo, thinking it was too stuffy to be part of our dining scene.  We frequent Mr. Fuji Sushi and The Meat House on a regular basis but for for some reason or another, we always bypassed Creo at Stuvesant Plaza. Setting our prejudices aside, we set off for to try a new experience. The menu had our names written all over it; how could we pass up on two of our favorite meals?

Our search for poutine in the Capital Region has led us to various interpretations, from The City Beer Hall to Capital City Gastropub, with little success in replicating the flavors and squeakiness of this French Canadian delicacy. They both deserve honorable mentions for use of quality ingredients but the magic is in a certain cheese curd and execution of the dish. It's hard to impress this Canadian-Vietnamese. Thus far, the only place that has been able to perfect the ratio of unmelted cheese curd to crispy fries and gravy has been The Montreal Poutine food truck. The cheese curd I look for has a particular flavor and texture that local cheddar curds here just don't have. Oddly enough, Montreal Poutine truck aside, the only other cheese curd with the exact flavor profile can be found frozen in Trader Joe's version of poutine but the fries and gravy that come with it are atrocious. It's difficult to describe what I'm looking for exactly in terms of flavor but it's almost a cross between mozzarella and cheddar and the texture and squeak of halloumi. So how does Creo's poutine fare? 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Good Night Noodle Preview

Pho with Chicken Meatball
This isn't the pho noodle soup I grew up with but I'm more than ok with it. It's all pho a good cause. Get it?! Forgive the pho pun. More on the soup. By day it's Good Morning Cafe, and by night owner Nancy Holzman and chef/business partner Linh Sullins are working to flip the same space into Good Night Noodle. Both under one roof, the businesses share a common objective: to bring good, healthy food using locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients with a give-back philosophy. You can read more about their mission and story at Indiegogo. 

Organic, grassfed, and gluten-free are not part of my Vietnamese vocabulary but it does translate into a delicious bowl of guilt-free pho soup. I found a kindred spirit in Linh as we chatted about our Vietnamese backgrounds and how she came about developing her recipe. With Good Morning Cafe's philosophy in mind, Linh wanted to echo those local and sustainable ingredients in her Vietnamese dishes while providing a healthier alternative. That means no MSG, no bouillon, and no fish sauce in the cooking process (gasp! more on that later). During a recent blogger preview, we were served bowls of chicken pho with samples of beef broth and veggie broth. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Vietnamese Pandan Waffles

No, that isn't a St. Patty's Day waffle. Ever since getting a wafflemaker for Christmas, J and I have been experimenting with an array of sweet and savory waffle creations. Ranging from Korean Pajeon Waffles to Cheddar Bacon Scallion Waffles and the ultimate Liege Waffle, the possibilities have been endless. It was only up until recently that I discovered the use of our waffle iron to make Vietnamese desserts. 

As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate my culture and its food more and am slowly incorporating Vietnamese recipes into my own repertoire.  My mom tipped me onto a Vietnamese cooking show on YouTube and the recipe below is based on Bep Nha Ta Nau which translate to My Home Kitchen. I came across the waffle recipe from this channel. When my parents came for a recent visit, I knew pandan waffles was something I wanted to make with my mom.

Are pandan waffles a fairly new Vietnamese creation? Mom never came across them during her childhood but we're no strangers to the classic Vietnamese flavors of pandan and coconut milk. No pandas were harmed in the making of pandan extract. Pandan is a floral green grass abundantly used in Vietnamese cooking and has a striking green color when blended. It has a unique fragrant and herby flavor that is subtly sweet and almost vanilla-like. It's most commonly paired with coconut milk in desserts and the marriage of these ingredients is magical. Here's a loose translation of the recipe:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Saigon Spring

It's no surprise that J and I are pho-natics. While Kim's Vietnamese is usually our go to for pho noodle soup, Saigon Spring excels at other classic Vietnamese dishes. My parents weren't able to come down for Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, so I wasn't able to get my share of homemade traditional foods. I had a hankering for bun thit nuong (grilled pork with rice noodles) and they make the best version of this dish up in Clifton Park. The pork is a great balance of sweet and savory with fragrant flavors of lemongrass, fish sauce, and garlic and grillled til there's a nice fatty char. Nothing is more disappointing than dry, overcooked pork but here it is juicy and mouth-watering good. But at the last minute, I had a change of heart and decided to celebrate New Year's with something more decadent. 

Another favorite dish that I use to get as a kid but haven't had in ages was mi xao don aka crispy noodles. While this dish is mostly Chinese influenced, it is a popular dish at Vietnamese restaurants and would be a special occasion dish to order. What better way to celebrate a holiday that is shared among Vietnamese and Chinese cultures alike. Saigon Spring's version is a seafood medley called do bien xao xa made with a lemongrass sauce. A bed of crispy noodles is covered in an array of giant plump shrimp, scallops, and mussels sauteed in sweet and spicy sauce with hunks of peppers and onions. It's a messy dish as you try to maneuver getting shards of crispy noodles into your mouth but the sauce softens some of the noodles creating a fun mix of textures. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Banh Mi Hung Phat

To most people Montreal is synonymous with the French-Canadian delicacy of poutine. J and I have a deep love for poutine but Montreal for us is about exploring my family's Vietnamese roots as well. My mom is an amazing cook and bar none makes the best homemade spring rolls and chicken pho noodle soup. The one dish that is best left to the professionals is the humble but oh so delicious banh mi sandwich. 

Marche Hung Phat has mastered the art of assembling a good 'ole banh mi sandwich. At a mere $3.50 in Canadian dollars/$3.32 in U.S. Dollars at the current exchange rate (that's no typo!), this deal blows the $5 footlong Subway sandwich out of the water. What makes a classic banh mi sandwich so good you ask? Let's break it down: 

- The Baguette: Did you know Vietnamese cuisine has a lot of French influences? Case in point--the very foundation of any sandwich--the bread. Banh mi literally translates to bread. What's unique about the Vietnamese version is that it's made from a combination of wheat and rice flours. The result is a crispy crust yet light innard, the perfect vehicle for meaty accroutrements.

-The Filling: A classic banh mi has a schmear of liver pate and homemade garlic mayo (other very French components) with thinly sliced layers of ham and pork bologna called cha lua. You can actually find cha lua at the Asian markets here in Albany if you want to give a go at making your own homemade banh mi sandwich. 

-The Greens: Must include pickled carrots and daikon, fresh crisp spears of cucumber, cilantro, and slices of bird chillies for a spicy kick. 

A good banh mi is a fine balance of the above elements. It's layers of flavors and textures in a humble sandwich. One bite and it's a party in your mouth: crispy, crunchy, spicy, meaty, salty, sour, umami. Banh mi sandwiches at Marche Hung Phat are that special. Maybe it's because of its location in the heavily French-influenced province of Quebec, or maybe it's because those ladies behind the counter just assemble your sandwich to order with love. By the way, every sandwich is customized to your liking so it really is made with love.  You can even deviate and order other banh mi sandwiches made with chicken, tofu, Vietnamese sausage, or pork meatball or go in a completely different direction with other Vietnamese soup dishes.

But really, make it a point to order yourself a #2 Classic Banh Mi at Marche Hung Phat. It's what they are known for. Best $3.50 you'll ever spend on "fast food" It's also conveniently located near  Little Italy and Marche Jean Talon's public farmer's market where you'll find more good eats and free samples along the way. -R

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Vietnamese Pho Soup

During our first Christmas together, R and I went up north to meet her parents for the first time.  It seems that, like many cultures, food is synonymous with hospitality in Vietnam, as I was stuffed to the gills with homemade eggrolls, wontons, sweets, and one very special soup; pho.  It is a broth developed for hours or days, then poured in a bowl of rice noodles and, in authentic cases, with servings of raw beef over it that you can push into the broth to cook directly.  It is invariably served in massive bowls, and when any restaurant advertises a large then that bowl can probably hold a family of 4 with pets.

Finding great pho has become something of a mission, as good Vietnamese food can be hard to come by. There are only a few decent places around here, and (I'm assuming) due to health standards they can't serve raw beef on the soup so you aren't going to get the real experience.  That said, here are the 3 best Vietnamese restaurants in the area we are aware of, in no particular order:

1.  Van's Vietnamese Restaurant:  This was the first Vietnamese restaurant I'd ever been to.  It isn't bad, per se, but I feel the soup is pretty forgettable.  Again maybe this is because I'd had the real thing fairly recently, so it's possible I'm being unfair, I just don't think Van when I get an itch for good pho or, for that matter, anything.  That said, it's certainly decent and a good introduction to Vietnamese food, as the grilled pork R let me try off her plate was delicious.  If you go here, try the entrees and leave the soup for one of the next places.

2.  Saigon Spring:  Based in Clifton Park, Saigon Spring is definitely the nicest looking restaurant, with a full bar and good sized, affordable menu.  The pho here is pretty good, there's a lightness to the broth that makes it good for lunch on a cool day.  Though the broth isn't very hearty, it is flavorful and enjoyable to eat, and the portions (as with all pho) are very generous.  If you try any of the entrees, I would again suggest a pork and rice dish (Vietnamese recipes for marinating pork are amazing, just as an aside).  Service is good, which I appreciate as I used to be a waiter.

3.  Kim's Vietnamese Restaurant:  This place just opened a few weeks ago, and we finally managed to get there and try it out this past weekend.  The inside is a little dull and poorly lit, and it seems like they're still setting things up inside.  It was also almost empty on a Friday night which was disappointing, because the pho was really good.  The broth was very rich and hearty, so much so I couldn't even finish it (which has never happened), so it's definitely more of a dinner place.  The flavors they worked into it were amazing, however, and the amount was good as well.  If there was one weakness, the beef seemed pretty dry and overcooked though the beef balls were excellent.  I can't suggest any other dishes as we've only been once, but if you like soup you owe it to yourself to try it here.  Also, the servers were very attentive and courteous without being obtrusive, so in spite of the decor I was very pleasantly surprised by the experience.

Does anyone else have suggestions for good Vietnamese?  As always, leave it in the comments. -J

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pho 88

Sorry for the long hiatus! J & R just got back from a week-long vacation in Maine. We made a point of stopping by some of the best foodie spots in Portland and discovered some great gems along the way and can't wait to share them with you within the next few posts. We are still recovering and slowly detoxing with lots of veggies and salad since I'm pretty sure our cholesterol levels are up the roof. But let me tell you how helpful Yelp was on this year's trip! 

Armed with the trusty Yelp and Foodspotting phone apps, we found a great little Vietnamese place in Lowell, MA. No McDonald's rest area lunch stops for us! If you find yourself anywhere near this area, make a point to stop by Pho 88. I was craving my mom's Bun Bo Hue (a spicy vermicelli soup, with soft tendon, sliced shank, ground shrimp and pork) and was so surprised to find it on the menu that I had to have it and boy did it hit the spot. This version even came with black blood pudding, a little bit too adventurous/Andrew Zimmern Bizzare Food-esque, even for me. The broth was perfectly spicy and full of delightful aromas like lemongrass. It was just as good as mom's (just don't tell her that). 

I'm pretty sure I got J addicted to pho since we started dating. If you have yet to try Vietnamese food, start out with this noodle soup and you'll be hooked. I make an o.k. chicken pho at home (in the crock pot!) but for the beef pho, we usually go out to Van's Vietnamese Restaurant in Albany or Saigon Spring in Clifton Park for the real deal bowl of goodness. One hot steaming bowl of pho is sure to cure any illness. Pho 88's version was just as good, if not better than Albany's. To drink, J had a tra da chanh (limeade made with jasmine tea) and I had a a durian milkshake with tapioca bubbles. Durian! Yup, it's that's funky fruit that to some people smells vile, is banned in enclosed spaces in Asia, but that I find oh so delicious! 

I wish Vietnamese restaurants here in Albany had as much variety as Pho 88 in Mass. They have dishes like bun rieu (Shrimp and crab meat with vermicelli noodle in a special crab tomato soup) and bun mang vit (Duck leg and fried bamboo shoots with vermicelli noodles soup) that are quintessential Vietnamese dishes that I crave and can't get around these parts, unless I place a special
order with mom when she comes to visit. I can't even get a proper bahn mi sandwich (the real deal baguette made with rice flour and schmear of pate) and that makes me want to start up a food truck just so I can eat one. The best ones by the way, are the ones made in Montreal. The Canadian-French-Vietnamese folk make a mean baguette. But until our next road trip east, I'll settle for Albany pho. -R