What a Hue to Eat
I have a Vietnamese friend who hates it whenever I review his culture’s cuisine—not because he wants to keep treasured dives a secret, but because he insists I don’t know nada. Months ago, he wrote a list of must-visits on a napkin, but he didn’t seem to care I had already reviewed three-quarters of the places.
So, this write-up is for you, Bao: Quan Vy Da is probably best known in Little Saigon for its massive indoor koi pond (complete with pagodas and lighthouses perched on faux promontories overlooking the fishies) and Latino waiters who speak Vietnamese better than most second-generation Viets. And, of course, the food: Hue-style, bolder, sharper, more complex than its northern and southern cousins. The region’s signature dish is bún bò Hue, the beef soup that tastes like liquid electricity, and while Quan Vy Da doesn’t serve the county’s best rendition, it’s darn close—radiating lemongrass and fermented shrimp paste, concurrently sweet, bitter and spicy, with sliced banana blossoms for texture. But the dish is really an afterthought here because bún bò Hue has become mainstream enough to sneak into non-Hue restaurants. Instead, most diners focus on other central Vietnam specialties.
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Take the shredded chicken: chunks of steamed hen—bone and marrow and skin and gristle—splayed across a plate. Steamed chicken on its own tastes, well, like chicken—bland, almost milky. People who like liver will enjoy the chicken as is; for those who demand flavor, dunk it in a small bowl of ginger-spiked fish sauce, then into a bigger bowl of the most aromatic chicken broth I’ve yet to smell, simply garnished with tarragon and onions. The double-dipping creates a hearty, spicy bite that you then counter by plopping a chopstick-ful of the pickled cabbage and cucumbers (like a sweeter kimchi) on the plate, paired with a mound of broken rice that constitutes its own meal. I don’t get the twig of lemon-tree leaves, though—I like the astringent, glazed flavor, but why so few? Or did I stupidly eat a decorative garnish?
Those diners who aren’t eating the shredded chicken usually go with the bánh béo, a steamed rice cake molded into small disks and topped with any number of ingredients—here, the focus is on pork rinds, which make a fine contrast with the bland cake. I prefer its variants, banh bot loc, banh nam and banh uot, essentially rice-flour sheets either presented flat or round, like a burrito or lasagna, and containing ground pork or shrimp. But Quan Vy Da’s true star? Stir-fried clams heavy on the pepper and onions, accompanied by sesame-seed-studded toasted rice paper that’s a cross between chicharrones and pappadum. Bao? You know your food, my chinito hermano.
Quan Vy Da, 9950 Bolsa Ave., Ste. B, Westminster, (714) 531-2905.