Ton-Ton's Journey: Vancouver 2007 will continue on Monday, December 10, 2007.)
Perusing a menu.
I've finally reached the point where the frustration, stress, and anger from my last job has melted away, leaving behind the memories and experiences that really matter. One of the best was my friendship with the Family Man, who managed a department closely connected to mine. A former refugee from Vietnam, our eating adventures in nearby Little Saigon opened up a new culinary world as he introduced me to the multicolored tapestry of Vietnamese cuisine.
Our watering hole of choice was Thanh My Restaurant, one of the oldest Vietnamese eateries in the area. With a bemused Elonweis in tow, we'd stop by at least once a month for lunch. It was one place we were sure would never disappoint us.
Picking a restaurant in Little Saigon can sometimes be difficult, particularly when trying to feed several people. The area is teeming with tiny eateries that specialize in one or two specific dishes, making it a problem when one person wants Pho (Rice Noodle Soup) and another one want Com Tam (Broken Rice). Sure, you can usually order rice at a Pho shop, but the results tend to be anything but satisfactory. What sets Thanh My apart is the variety offered by its extensive menu and the knowledge that whatever you order, it's sure to be delicious.
The Family Man and I often joke that the perfect title for a book on Vietnamese cuisine would be "101 Ways to Eat Fish Sauce". Nuoc Mam, a seasoning made by fermenting a type of anchovy-like fish raw, is ubiquitous in Vietnamese cooking. Often misunderstood, the final product is strained and aged to produce a mellow, indescribably savory condiment that bears as much resemblance to the fish used in its production as good Irish cheddar does to milk. Almost every Vietnamese dish contains this subtle flavor enhancer in some form or another. Once mixed with sugar, lime juice, and water, Nuoc Mam becomes Nuoc Cham, a rich, golden dipping sauce served with appetizers and grilled meat entrees. Nuoc Mam is also used in making peanut sauce, another condiment for grilled meat popular with Americans, and in the pickling of vegetables. To fully enjoy the vast world of Vietnamese cuisine, you need to develop an acceptance for both Nuoc Mam and its more extreme cousins, such as Mam Ruoc (Fermented Shrimp Paste).
Once you're ready to take the Nuoc Mam plunge, Khai Vi (Appetizers) are a good way to start. Vietnamese starters are heavily influenced by the royal cuisine developed in the ancient capital of Hue, where the Emperor Tu Duc's fondness for a variety of small dishes gave rise to a formidable array of finger foods. My preffered style of Khai Vi are Cuon (Rolls), usually made with rice paper wrappers containing herbs, greens, and some form of protein.
Since I'm also a Nuoc Cham addict, Thanh My's Bi Cuon (Pork Skin Rolls) are my favorite way to start a meal. Pork skin is steamed, thinly sliced, tossed in toasted rice flour, and wrapped in rice paper with a cooling selection of herbs and greens. Since what's left once the pork fat has been removed is basically gelatin, it's like chewing a mouthful of savory miniature gummy worms encased in the tenderest condom imaginable. The thin shreds of skin are perfect for gripping and holding large amounts of fish sauce, which makes Bi Cuon the perfect way to enjoy Nuoc Cham short of free-basing the stuff.
If the idea of deep-throating a tube of porky goodness doesn't appeal to you... Wuss! Well, ok. There are other ways to get your fish sauce fix. In addition to the more familiar Goi Cuon Tom (Poached Shrimp Rolls) and Goi Cuon Tom Thit (Poached Shrimp and BBQ Pork Rolls), Thanh My offers a number of grilled appetizers and entrees served with rice wrappers and a heaping mound of herbage for you to make your own do-it-yourself rolls. The Chao Tom, marinated ground shrimp meat wrapped around pieces of sugar cane and grilled, were recommended to me by the owner and perfect for rolling up. Any of the Nuong (Grilled) entrees are served with the wrappers and work well as appetizers when shared with friends. Elonweis and I thoroughly enjoyed the Cuon we made with Nai Nuong (Grilled Venison).
For those who find the hands-on aspect of rolling your own Cuon intimidating, watch some archived footage of Beach, the Don of Little Saigon, showing me how to work it. The trick is to dip the dry rice wrapper in the water, then lay it on your plate to soften as it absorbs the water in its surface. This will give you a very resilient subject to work with. If you let the wrapper hydrate in the bowl of water, it will fall apart when you try to roll it around your filling.
Once you've sampled some appetizers, it's time to think about a main course. The Family Man swears by Thanh My's Com Tam (Broken Rice), with good reason. Moist and fluffy, each kernel has the al dente consistency of high quality cous cous. The grilled items are perfectly seasoned, but don't drown the rice in oil the way certain other restaurants do. As is my custom when ordering com tam, I usually order the Com Tam Bi Cha Tau Hu Ky with Bi, Cha (Vietnamese Steamed Quiche), and Tau Hu Ky (Shrimp Sausage wrapped in Bean Curd Skin). For my instructions on how to eat Com Tam, check out this post. As you might imagine, a lot of Nuoc Cham is involved.
Another filling lunch option is Thanh My's Bo Kho Banh Mi (Beef Stew with French Bread). Elonweis is addicted to this stuff, with its tender chunks of beef slowly simmered in a rich stock and served with a crusty loaf of French bread to sop up the gravy. Rice can be substituted for the bread on request, which is usually what she does. Yes, fish sauce is a key part of this dish as well. You can't escape it!
The only strike-out I've ever had at Thanh My was when I ordered the Mi Tom Cua Xa Xiu, an egg noodle soup with shrimp, crab, and BBQ pork in a subtle broth. The only problem was, the broth was too subtle, leaving me reaching for the fish sauce to kick it up.
However, every rain cloud has a silver lining. When I made a return visit to give the Mi Tom Cua Xa Xiu a second chance, I accidentally ordered the Mi Tom Cua Xa Xiu Kho. That one syllable made all the difference in the world. Mi Tom Cua Xa Xiu Kho (Dry Egg Noodle with Shrimp, Crab, and BBQ Pork) dispenses with the insipid broth and replaces it with an unctuous red sauce that coats every noodle with the richness of egg yolks and pork. Add battered fried shrimp instead of boiled, and you've got the God-King of Vietnamese egg noodle dishes, or so Elonweis and I thought. Then we stumbled across Hu Tieu Mi Kho (Dry Mung Bean and Egg Noodles), which had the same sauce and toppings. The addition of the Hu Tieu (Mung Bean Noodles) added a soft textural component that, when paired with the firm chewiness of the egg noodles, brought the entire dish together. With a few chrysanthemum leaves and bean sprouts added for their astringent kick, and a strong bowl of savory broth on the side, we were in noodle heaven.
But, our explorations didn't stop there. Although it's a popular lunchtime destination, Thanh My is known for its traditional Vietnamese dishes meant to be eaten family-style. My friend Bee from Rasa Malaysia is another fan of the restaurant. During lunch at another eatery, she recommended Thanh My's Ngheu Xao Dau Hao (Clams with Oyster Sauce), which I dutifully ordered when the opportunity next presented itself. I'm happy I did. The clams were fresh and succulent, practically bursting with juice. Chili peppers added a nice heat, and the liberal amount of chopped cilantro brightened up the dark flavor of the oyster sauce. The clams and their sauce were great on top of big bowls of steamed rice. Elonweis and I licked that plate clean. We're planning on heading back for dinner soon with a bigger group of people so we can really hit up their family-style offerings.
Dessert is complimentary at Thanh My. The waiter brings around bowls of warm mung bean, tapioca, and seaweed Che (Sweetened Dessert Soup). It's not bad, but sometimes I crave a little something more.
In these instances, I turn to the beverage menu. A cool glass of Rau Ma (Pennyworth Leaf Juice) often served to sooth a stomach abused from overeating. For something heftier, I get the Sinh To Dau Xanh Rau Ma, a smoothie made with mung bean and pennyworth leaf juice. When I'm in a wicked mood, I enjoy the complex flavors of durian in Sinh To Sau Rieng (Durian Shake). After all, a sweet ending without a bit of bite would be unrealistic.
Thanh My Restaurant - Their dishes may not be the best, but the food is good and they offer a wide selection of well-prepared dishes sure to satisfy any party. Bring your friends.
Bi Guon - $3.95
Chao Tom - $8.95
Nai Nuong - $14.95
com Tam Bi Cha Tau Hu Ky - $5.96
Bo Kho Banh Mi - $5.95
Mi Tom Cua Xa Xiu - $5.50
Mi Tom Cua Xa Xiu Kho - $5.95
Hu Tieu Mi Kho - $6.50
Ngheu Xao Dau Hao - $9.95
Rau Ma - $1.75
Sinh To Dau Xanh Rau Ma - $3.25
Sinh To Sau Rieng - $3.25
Thanh My Restaurant
9553 Bolsa Ave.
Westminster, CA 92683-5904
Read Foodie Universe's review of Thanh My here.