It happens to me all the time. One moment I'm reading A Passion for Food or mmm-yoso!!! while I eat my lunch, the next moment I've got a serious jonesing for a deep fried Monte Cristo sandwich or Spam Curry that no amount of the green salad and grilled chicken breast I packed from home can alleviate. So tasty, yet so out of reach...
So, you can understand why when I read this review by Elmomonster about the broken rice at Com Tam Thuan Kieu and realized it was less than fifteen minutes away from my office, I tossed my barely touched salad back in the fridge and went looking for a partner in crime.
(Yes, I'm reviewing the place less than a week after Elmo did. In this case, I'm a biter. Mea culpa, though I am giving full credit for the discovery to my primary source. Consider it a supplemental work. =b)
Although I actually had to wait until the next day to realize my com tam craving, I eventually located a suitable second for this daring escapade; fellow manager and next door office neighbor, "the Family Man". The family man is Vietnamese and a com tam fan, so convincing him that we needed to check this place out wasn't difficult. After a fight through traffic due to construction, we arrived.
At this point, I need to make sure you've read Elmo's review, otherwise this article won't make as much sense.
Coincidentally, Com Tam Thuan Kieu is less than a block away from Furiwa Seafood Restaurant, which I reviewed last weekend. Con Tam Thuan Kieu is located on the corner of Lyndon and Brookhurst, just after the 11th and Brookhurst intersection if you're headed into Garden Grove from Fountain Valley.
Let me tell you, bringing along the Family Man was a stroke of genius. I speak about as much Vietnamese as I do Spanish, which means I can name random food items. My guess is that our server that day spoke English to roughly the same degree. Luckily for me, the Family Man is first generation Vietnamese, which means I was in with the in crowd that day. Obtaining seating and water were not issues.
In his review, Elmo covered the #7 Com Tam Thuan Kieu 7 mon A pretty well. So I ordered the #8 Com Tam Thuan Kieu 7 mon B. I've tried to figure out what was actually on my plate to the best of my ability, using the picture I took and the help of the Chinese characters on the menu.
As far as I can tell, despite the confusing English description, my plate contained the following:
- Bi - Shredded Pork; the noodley stuff in the middle. According to Elmo, this item was "Wispy strands of translucent pork skin and julienned meat tossed with toasted rice powder." But if I hadn't know that from his review, I would have sworn I was eating oddly seasoned rice noodles. The pork had a firm, chewy, gelatinous texture with a mildly pleasant taste that wasn't remotely meat-like. As a textural component, it added a bit of variety, but I could take it or leave it.
- Cha - Vietnamese Egg Quiche; the pie-like stuff in the upper left with the disturbingly orange-red top. Made with bits of sliced pork, wood ear mushrooms, and glass noodles, it was savory and juicy, with a soft, fine curd. Probably one of my favorite items in this plate.
- Nem - Broiled Beef Meatball; the two brown, heel-shaped things in the lower left. From the Chinese characters, "nem" just means meatball. My guess is that Com Tam Thuan Kieu switches up what meat the meatball is made from depending on the day, since Elmo's was pork and mine was definitely beef. I've always been a big fan of Asian-style meatballs, which are made from a finely minced, seasoned paste of meat, and are usually boiled or steamed before any other cooking techniques are applied to them. These were cooked well, but unremarkable in flavor.
- Cha Gio - Vietnamese Egg roll; if I have to describe it, you've been living in the boonies. An excellent example of its breed, this one was filled with seasoned pork. A proper egg roll isn't too large, is crispy on the outside, is warm and cooked through on the inside, isn't to greasy, has a good balance between its ingredients, and is able to retain its crispy skin indefinitely. This egg roll delivered in the spades.
- Tau Hu Ky - Shrimp Sausage wrapped in Bean Curd Skin; the rectangular thing on the bottom right that looks like a block of deep fried tofu. This is my all-time favorite Vietnamese food item. Finely ground, seasoned shrimp meat was steamed in a block, then wrapped in yuba bean curd skin and deep fried. The resulting crispy and springy texture was highly appealing to me, although I think some might find it a bit bland. Cat is quite fond of these things too.
- Chao Tom - Shrimp Sausage Broiled on Sugarcane; the curled, orange hemispheres in the upper center. Very similar in texture and flavor to the tau hu ky, but the sugarcane added an extra bit sweetness and caramelization. Quite enjoyable.
- Suon - Charbroiled Pork Chop; far right of the plate. Simply seasoned with salt, it had nice caramelization, but was a little dry. I prefer Taiwanese fried pork chops.
I think I was supposed to be able to choose something other than the pork chop; at least that's what both the Chinese characters and English description let me to believe. However, that topic never came up during my admittedly limited conversation with the waiter. Might have been for the best. As Elmo warned me, this plate was huuuuuuuge. Two-thirds of it is still sitting in my fridge at the office.
Since the Family Man ordered in Vietnamese, I have no idea what number plate he selected. I'm guessing it was something like "Com Tam Bi Nem Heo", since his entree contained:
- Bi - Shredded Pork. See above.
- Nem - Broiled Beef Meatball. See above.
- Heo - Charbroiled Sliced Pork, which he was nice enough to share with me. The pork was a little dry, but well flavored with soy sauce, nuoc mam, ginger, scallions, and other spices.
The main draw was, of course, the com tam. The broken bits of rice were steamed and had a texture somewhat reminiscent of couscous. I thought it was a little oily from all the fried and broiled items piled on top, and also a bit too dry. The Family Man thought it was pretty good. But since he prefers his com tam plain, fluffy, and without excess moisture, the extra juices that had seeped into the rice from his heo turned him off a little. We both thought the com tam was ok, but not the best we'd ever had. I think Com Tam Thuan Kieu might benefit from separating the rice from the toppings in its presentation in order to cater to different tastes.
The nuoc cham was excellent, although I felt the need to kick it up with some extra chili garlic paste. I also downed about seven of the Thai bird chiles with my meal for extra flavor and heat. The trick to surviving such an ordeal is in the order of consumption.
- First, apply some nuoc cham to your food. The Family Man likes to sprinkle it on his rice. I like to cut off a piece of protein and dip it.
- Then, eat your piece of protein with a spoonful of rice. As typical Asian eaters, the Family Man and I use small pieces of protein and large spoonfuls of rice.
- While chewing your food, take a healthy bite of the chile. The Family Man though I was crazy. The heat from Thai bird chiles isn't too bad. If you want to start off slow, eat the red chiles first. Immature chiles are hotter than ripe ones.
- If the heat becomes too much of you, eat some of the julienned carrot and daikon pickles provided. The sugar used in the pickle brine will bind to the capsaicin in the chile and neutralize it. Certain chemicals in the daikon will also help.
- Sip some of the broth to wash away the last of the pickle and the heat.
- Take a bite of cucumber to clear your palate.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu - A good place to satisfy any com tam cravings.
Bill (for one):
#8 Com Tam Thuan Kieu 7 mon B - 7.95
Tax - 0.62
Tip - 1.43
Total - 10.00
Service: A (As long as you have a handy native speaker.)
Com Tam Thuan Kieu
14282 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
Com Tam Thuan Kieu
120 E Valley Blvd., Ste. I
San Gabriel, CA 91776