The other week, my parents and sister met Robyn and Tristan for the first time over dinner at Nha Trang in Chinatown. Robyn had just returned back from a weekend in Charlottesville with Tristan, and they were HUNGRY! We let my mom and dad take care of the ordering, all knowing that we were in good hands Both my parents grew up in Vietnam (even though we’re officially ZERO% Vietnamese) and know the cuisine well. It’s funny, nature versus nurture. Our family is Chinese, but I grew up mainly on Vietnamese food, thanks to my Grandma’s weekend dinners.
Drinks, which can also double as dessert, are an essential part of any Vietnamese meal. My sister went with the soda xi muoi, a drink loved by all in our family. The drink is presented as a glass filled with ice and preserved salted plums. A can of seltzer and it’s DIY from there, just pop open the can, pour, watch the fizzzzz and drink up! It’s especially good when you have a sore throat, though you need make no excuse to drink this on a daily basis.
Robyn took the adventurous route with sua hot ga, another seltzer based drink, but instead of preserved plums you’ve got a raw egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk – a deadly delicious combination! I don’t think I could drink a whole glass of this, the liquefied raw egg yolk throws me off a bit, but a sip or two I could surely appreciate.
I’ve been on a che ba mau kick recently, having drunk/slurped up five different versions within the past two weeks. My mom used to make this rather often at home, and it wasn’t until a few months after I moved here that I realized, why, I haven’t had my cup of che ba mau in forever! There are three main components, colours, if you will, involved in this drink. Mung beans (yellow), azuki beans (red), and these long squiggly jelly things (green!) The components are layered in a tall glass with crushed ice, a la shave ice and coconut milk. Nha Trang’s version is weak at the best, the coconut milk was watered down, and there was barely any ice…maybe they let it sit in the kitchen too long and all the ice melted into the milk DO NOT LET YOUR DRINK SIT, please.
Ahh, yeah, Che in general is good stuff. I should probably make my own at home seeing that it’s so difficult to come across good che here. I Googled different kinds of Vietnamese ches a bit and landed upon Elmo’s post on Banh Mi Che Cali…I love that place! He mentioned one type of che I love in particular and have not been able to find in the city: che banh lot. They are deliciously shiny green worms, I kid you not. But I’ve yet to find a good version in Manhattan.
Now I am getting homesick for San Gabriel Valley!
Tristan’s avocado milkshake was certainly the best I’ve had in this city to date, a buttery thick concoction, just sweet enough, the right kind of sweet you know? The sweet obtained only though a generous helping of sweetened condensed milk? It was not quite creamy and rich as San Gabriel Valley’s Mr. Baguette, but then again, I never expected to encounter another avocado milkshake that reach their standards. Sigh. I’d say it’d worth a flight back to LA just for that milkshake alone!
Soon after our drinks arrived, our very enthusiastic waiter brought out the ‘appetizers’. First came a plate of vegetables, a paltry mix of lettuce and cucumbers. The portion, and quality was a far cry from what would have been given in a San Gabriel restaurant, or Hawaii where even the smallest bowl of pho or a single order of cha gio come with an overflowing plate of fresh veggies…
Not the least bit greasy, fried crisp and thinly wrapped, the cha gio was better than expected, with a surprisingly good amount of shrimp. I like these ‘mini’ cha gio more than the larger, longer ones you find elsewhere because you don’t have to worry about cutting them into smaller pieces for they’re just the right size for wrapping.
Wonderfully charred with smoky and intensely meaty flavour, the bo nuong mo chai was nothing short of addictive. I could easily see myself popping these in my mouth a la popcorn…ONLY BETTER! It’s a simple dish, charbroiled ground beef, but oh dear, the end product is something else! The exterior is sharp and crisp but innards remain wonderfully juicy so that eat bite yields a twist of textures all punctuated by a spicy memory.
There’s no real manner or method to this but here’s how I do it: lettuce + vermicelli + pickled carrots and daikon + hunk of cha gio, beef, or shrimp paste. Wrap tightly (this is where I always go wrong…) then super dunk straight into your personal bowl of nuoc nam.
I’ve never been a huge fan of chao tom, although it is one on my mom’s favourite dishes. Shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane and then grilled. It must be the texture I’m not too chummy with – I love the exterior char, but after you get past that, it’s just gummy shrimpyness. Maybe this explains why I was never enamoured with fish cake?
There was a brief interlude between the appetizers and entrees, which is a surprise cause Vietnamese restaurants tend to be good at slamming out dishes at a remarkable rate. But soon enough arrived my sister’s pho tai. My sister is a peculiar eater, not to say she doesn’t like to eat, but she knows what she likes and she tends to stick to that and nothing else. Except for desserts and pastries…she’ll venture out for that! So here is her pho tai, the only dish she eats at Vietnamese restaurants. Woohoo!
This is the first time I’ve had canh chua tom at a restaurant. My grandma makes it frequently back in Hawaii, but I am no longer in Hawaii…so until then, restaurants will make do! It’s a sweet and sour shrimp based soup, and Nha Trang’s version was far too sour for my tastes. The sour is to play a prominent role but not to the point where it induces one to squeeze her cheeks in from the surprise shock. A generous serving of salmon was a welcome surprise, seeing as the dish is usually done with shrimp and not salmon. Helpings of okra, pineapples chunks, tomatoes and bean sprouts rounded it all out. Oh! And this one other vegetable for which I do not know the English name. The Vietnamese name is “bak hah” …or at least that’s how it sounds to me… The vegetable is green and comes in huge sturdy stalks, very porous and you slice it into 1/2-inch thick chunks to dump in the soup. It instantly soaks up the soup quicker than a sponge. It does not have much flavour alone but after a good 60 second soak, it retains its crispness and picks up all the essence of the soup. And then you eat it! I wish I could tell you the name
I’ve never been a huge fan of frogs so did not eat much of the ech um curry, essentially a thick curry of frog legs with broccoli, tomatoes and onions. This was the last dish to be finished by all at the dinner table, as it was pedestrian in flavour (aside from the novelty of frog legs!). I did, however, very much like how thick the curry was – it clung on so tightly to the broccoli, and for a minute there I wish someone would invent a dish of CURRY FRIED BROCCOLI. Then I could die very happy.
But the best dish of the night by far, was the ca kho to, a remarkable casserole of salmon braised in a savoury-sweet ‘caramel’ sauce. Spooned over a hot mound of steaming rice, the thick ginger spiked sauce of caramelized sugar and nuoc nam soaks in most luxuriously and makes for a breathtaking bite. Add the flaky sweet salmon, thin slices of ginger, just a cut of chili and you’ve found a near perfect dish. It begs to be eaten, edging borders of rich savoury that dares to be a touch sweet. Had I not indulged in all you’ve seen above, I could have easily done away this casserole in blissful silence. Catfish or snapper is traditionally used, but I enjoyed this version done with salmon. Any and all other disappointments from the meal dashed from mind with the very first bite.
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