In today’s episode, our band of meddling kids explore the mysteries of Hue cuisine at Little Saigon’s Quan Hy. Sandra invited friends from the Chowhound board. I loved that nobody cared what was on the menu. We all were in, no matter what showed up on the table. True chowhounds!
The chorus of flavors in Vietnamese cuisine fascinates me. If there’s a Vietnamese term for medley of contrasting flavors and textures, I’d like to know. Herbs like ginger and cilantro play off salty, pungent fish sauce laced with palm sugar. Crunchy brown bits of fried shallot versus fresh green onion. Soft, gooey glutinous rice against fried bits of rice cracker. All in one dish. Fascinating, simple, and a lovely principle with which to feed loved ones.
Our waiter did a great job describing dishes we never tried, and suggested a few winners. He steered us away from one of the clam dishes, saying it’s a Hue specialty that even some Vietnamese don’t like.That’s like waving a steak in front of a dog with this group. Yeah, we got it and loved it. He later revealed that he doesn’t like this dish.
We started with banh beo, steamed rice cakes with shredded shrimp. Splashed with fish sauce flavored with hot chilis, these were terrific. The rice cake’s neutral flavor plays with the slightly sweet fish sauce, the shrimp, and the crunchy fried shallot.
Next up: banh it ram, described inadequately on the menu as “potsticker stuffed with mushroom, and shrimp on crunchy rice cake.” It’s a clash of textures: a saucer shaped fried rice cake stuffed with shrimp and shrooms, and capped with steamed and pounded sticky rice that I can only describe as mochi’s gooey cousin. Garnished with green onion and fried shallot, this was one of my favorite dishes. If you like mochi, definitely get it.
Soups were next: bun bo dac biet cha hue. Special Hue royal noodle soup with pork, beef, and pork patties. Hue style broth is somewhere between the clear beefy flavor of a good pho broth and the funky, fiery, pork-rich cauldron of red chili and lime of a Mexican pozole. This version came with substantially thick, cut pieces of rice noodle, well stewed pieces of pork, beef and pork patty. The pork patty here is like a skinless sausage, mildly flavored and unthreatening. I’ve had Hue style noodles at Thanh My, and their patty is a square of congealed pork blood. Complex, tart, tangy, herby and spicy.
Banh canh tom cua white noodle soup w/ crab and shrimp. The soup is pure essence of crab, tinted turmeric yellow, and slightly starch thickened. The thickener got in the way of an otherwise lovely soup, filled with thick hand cut noodles, crabmeat and seafood.
Com hen. Stir fried manila clams and vegetables with steamed rice. This is the dish our waiter warned us about. He called it a “jungle style” dish. Well, that’s one jungle I’d like to spend more time in. With lots of shredded vegetables and fruit (pineapple!) supporting the steamed shreds of clam, it’s practically a salad. It comes with a bowl of hot clam broth, chili paste, julienned ginger, and a pungent shrimp paste. For Viet customers, the kitchen mixes these components together, but they kept it separate for us gringos in case we didn’t like any of them.
Anyway, the condiments are combined with the dish, and served with steamed rice. The crisp rice cracker studded with black sesame softens, and adds its character to the dish. Fabulous!
Mi guang. Yellow noodles w/ shrimp, pork, and mixed vegeables. This reminded me of a Thai dish, but with cleaner, more distinct flavors. The individual voices in a Thai dish sometimes get lost in the song. Vietnamese food flavors somehow remain distinct within a multilayered dish. Excellent!
We didn’t try desserts from Quan Hy because Sandra brought treats from L.A.’s superchic new patisserie, Boule. Sandra lives practically around the corner from this very high end boutique of pastry. Lucky!
Below are macaroons: lemon, rose, and chocolate. We also tried five chocolate treats. Wasabi flavored chocolate truffles, passsionfruit jellies, caramel filled chocolates with sea salt, and a couple others that I don’t remember. The other photos, sadly, didn’t come out well.
I stumbled across NorCal based writer Andrea Nguyen’s Viet World Kitchen. Check out the Mama Says page for cooking tips from a Vietnamese mom with gems like, “When bringing home your bottle of fish sauce (or any other kind of condiment), avoid laying them down in the bag or in your car. The bottles are seldom packaged with tight seals and can leak.”
10212 Westminster Blvd
Garden Grove, CA
UPDATE Fall 2005: The Westminster Blvd location has closed
9727 Bolsa Ave
(inside the T & K plaza – see my Vietnamese Costco post)