To Find Ngu Binh
Like the guy at the bottom of a human pyramid, you’ll find Ngu Binh squished into the lower floor of a multilevel building full of Vietnamese shops. Unless you know it’s there, you won’t be able to tell it apart from the massage parlors and nail salons. Luckily, the LA Times’ C. Thi Nguyen recently picked it out from the pile and circled it with a big highlighter. Nguyen’s column is titled “The Find.” And boy is it!
Even before the article published, the wait times at this sticky-table dive were an hour long. Come a minute after their 8 p.m. closing time, and the staff will turn you away. But at least now, because of the extra attention, they’ve realized that not all who come are Vietnamese speakers. A menu with English translations and pictures supplements the previously all-Vietnamese single-sheet list, offering exactly 18 dishes. Most are rearrangements of rice-flour batter, the chosen medium. The starch is to this Hue cuisine specialist as semolina is to the Italians.
Steamed in tiny saucers, it’s called banh beo. Spread as thin as film and used as noodle wraps, it’s called banh uot. And that’s just two iterations.
Do start with an order of banh beo chen. It comes in 10 single-serving shots, stacked like mahjong tiles on an orange cafeteria tray so flimsy it warps under the weight. To eat it, take a teaspoon, splash on a few golden drops of fish sauce, and then scoop out the silver-dollar-sized rice cakes as you would cups of dessert gelatin. It’s actually flavorless until it absorbs that sauce.
The milky-white substance is not unlike a very dense rice noodle that wobbles all the way to your mouth. Everything that tops it—shrimp pulverized to a pink-hued hash, shards of deep-fried onions, oil-wilted chopped scallions, a piece of crunchy pork rind—feels like a heady rush of contrasting textures.
Move on to the banh uot tom chay. It’s about then you begin to appreciate the versatility of rice flour and the ingenuity of Hue cooks in exploiting it. Spread thinner than a French crepe, what playfully wiggled in your mouth before now melts like snow, rolled around chopped shrimp into a wet, floppy, ethereal albino taquito that you dip into that all-purpose fish sauce. You’ve seen a similar dish of dim sum called cheong fun, but the Chinese version is lead-weighted by comparison.
Not everything at Ngu Binh is made with rice flour. Tapioca makes the banh bot loc dumpling translucent, resembling squat jellyfish with shrimp-y brains at dead-center. Its chewy texture is uncannily similar to old bubble gum.
You can get a combo of banh beo and the banh bot loc on one plate. But because the banh beo are already removed from their tiny molds and arranged in a circle for easy eating, it all but takes the fun out—the difference between gulping an oyster from the half-shell and an oyster shooter. Get this dish only if you have zero patience.
Those with dentures should be warned against ordering the banh it kep banh ram. Their teeth’s tolerance will be tested by the taffy pull of the steamed mochi part and KO’d by the skull-rattling crunch of the fried part.
Give novices the banh nam. The gently supple things could be easily be tamales, made with pudding-soft rice paste and stuffed with pork and shrimp, then steamed inside a banana leaf.
Once you’ve filled up on the rice-flour-based nibbles, slurp the mi quang, a bowl of wide egg noodles half-submerged in a concentrated turmeric-laced broth doubling as sauce. On top, you’ll find whole shrimp, sliced pork cakes, scraps of meat, peanuts and a swooping black sesame-studded rice cracker.
Or better yet, order the finest bun bo hue in Little Saigon. A floating, fire-alarm-red oil slick accounts for the first few millimeters of the broth. This incendiary film clings to every strand of the spaghetti-thick rice noodles you fish out of the bowl and coats everything it touches, be it the hand-formed pork cakes, the pork blood cubes, the tendon-y sliced beef brisket or the now-throbbing insides of your mouth.
Cool off with the goi mit xuc banh trang, a tart and crunchy salad made with peanuts, mint and young jackfruit chopped up to masquerade as pork. Use the crispy rice crackers as both your scooping utensil and crouton.
At busy times, it is not unusual to be assigned a seat at a table with strangers. Turnover is as constant as the service is brusque. Don’t be offended if you never get a “thank you,” “come again” or even a smile from staffers. If you’re lingering past closing time, they’ll start wiping the floors down with Pine-Sol as a not-so-subtle cue for you to leave. Pay your check in cash, drop a tip, and as soon as you’re outside, rejoice: You just found one of the greatest Hue restaurants in OC.
Ngu Binh, 14072 Magnolia St., Ste. 107, Westminster, (714) 903-6000. Entrées, $5.75-$6.50. Open Tues.-Sun., 9 a.m.-8 p.m. No alcohol. Cash only.
This review appeared in print as "Going All the Hue: Ngu Binh is a joy of a find."
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