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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Nha Trang Revisited, and Other Manhattan Vietnamese Picks

Manhattan may lack world-class Vietnamese chow, but many hounds happily get their fix at Chinatown’s dependable Nha Trang. The don’t-miss dish is smoky, sumptuous suon nuong (barbecued pork chops), insists jungirl, a fan for 16 years and counting. She likes it as a rice plate, with broken rice that soaks up the great meat juices; bun (rice vermicelli) can serve the same purpose.

A seasonal must-order–and the season is drawing to a close–is cua lot rang muoi (salt and pepper fried soft shell crabs). Also recommended: cha gio (spring rolls), ca chien chanh (whole fried fish), canh chua ga (hot and sour chicken soup), and rau muong xao toi (hollow-stem water spinach with garlic). Ech chien bo (frog legs fried in butter) is the equal of La Grenouille’s, swears guttergourmet (and Nha Trang, unlike La Grenouille, also makes frog legs with chile and lemongrass).

Not everyone is a fan–overall, Nha Trang is just OK, says Mike Lee. And even some of its partisans admit that pho isn’t among its strengths. The best in town for this Vietnamese noodle soup remains Cong Ly (see also ChowNews #189), which brews a deep, alluring beef broth that’s the key to superior pho. “It’s simple, straightforward, very cheap, and authentic,” writes surly, “the closest we have in Manhattan to the great Vietnamese food in California’s Orange County.” And, adds Mike Lee, they don’t skimp on the ngo gai, or sawleaf herb. Beyond pho, Cong Ly scores with its bun bo hue, a spicy, meaty noodle soup from central Vietnam–though others like the version at Thai Son (see also ChowNews #191).

Other neighborhood Vietnamese picks include Pho Grand, Nam Son, Pho Tu Do for bun rieu (rice noodle soup with crab), and Pho Viet Huong, where Peter Cherches recommends cha gio, spicy shrimp salad, bo la nho (grilled beef in grape leaves), and anything with lemongrass and hot pepper.

Nha Trang Restaurant [Chinatown]
87 Baxter St., between Walker and White, Manhattan
212-233-5948
Map

Nha Trang Restaurant [Chinatown]
148 Centre St., between Walker and White, Manhattan
212-941-9292
Map

Cong Ly Restaurant [Chinatown]
124 Hester St., at Chrystie, Manhattan
212-343-1111
Map

Thai Son [Chinatown]
89 Baxter St., between Walker and Bayard, Manhattan
212-732-2822
Map

Pho Grand [Chinatown]
277C Grand St., between Eldridge and Forsyth, Manhattan
212-965-5366
Map

Nam Son Vietnamese Restaurant [Chinatown]
245 Grand St., between Bowery and Chrystie, Manhattan
212-966-6507
Map

Pho Tu Do [Chinatown]
119 Bowery, between Grand and Hester Sts, Manhattan
212-966-2666
Map

Pho Viet Huong [Chinatown]
a.k.a. Nha Hang Pho Viet Huong
73 Mulberry St., between Canal and Bayard, Manhattan
212-233-8988
Map

Board Links: Vietnamese–What’s the best?
Nha Trang–what to order
Nha Trang —Centre or Baxter?

Earthshaking Dessert Tip: Cafe Lafayette’s Chocolate Volcano

At Fort Greene’s Cafe Lafayette, you can top off with the Chocolate Volcano–high-quality chocolate, judiciously sweetened raspberry sauce, excellent vanilla ice cream. For devotees, the earth moves. “Perfection every time,” sighs realbreadplease, who declares this the best chocolate dessert in all of Brooklyn. Good robust coffee, too.

Cafe Lafayette [Fort Greene]
99 S Portland Ave., between Lafayette Ave and Fulton St., Brooklyn
718-624-1605
Locater

Board Links: chow experiences in Fort Greene

Anything But Pastrami at Memphis Minnie’s

Don’t go to Memphis Minnie’s expecting the New York pastrami of your (or someone else’s) childhood. ChowFun christened it a “Sloppy Yossel,”arriving slathered in barbecue sauce, weirdly spiced, and more smoked than cured. The answer is to go for the fatty brisket. Moist, smoky, and fork-tender, it’s the best Civil Bear, a competitive brisket-cook, has ever had.

But the real sleeper meal at Memphis Minnie’s is brunch. They make pulled pork with sweet potato hash over biscuits and tangy greens, and gravy made from their own sausages. Another good option: BBQ brisket hash, spicy and smoky and primed for oozing poached eggs. The biggest surprise is their French toast, so light and crispy that it may do some time near the fryer, speculates Chowsmurf. The accompanying compote is made with whole strawberries.

Memphis Minnie’s [Haight]
576 Haight St., San Francisco
415-864-7675
Map

Board Links: Brunch at Memphis Minnie’s- My new ‘guilty’ pleasure
Pastrami Chowdown…Part One!...Memphis Minnie’s

Standout Taco Trucks

The cemitas (a kind of Mexican sandwich) at a certain truck that parks in front of a Smart & Final in West LA one-up the rest, being made with Mexican-style cream cheese instead of panela, says Dommy. (She probably means Angelica Cemitas Poblana.) The sturdier panela goes better with tortas, a heftier kind of sandwich. Cemitas can have a variety of fillings–milanesa (thin, breaded and pan-fried beef) is popular, and this truck does carnitas and milanesa de pollo really well.

The mariscos truck on Figueroa (the blue one, not the white) is more like a gourmet seafood restaurant on wheels, says socal–only super-fresh shrimp, scallops; and fish. The tostada mixta features all of those, piled on a hard tortilla with avocado, lemon and hot sauce. It’s friggin’ great.

The best taco trucks aren’t trucks at all, Dommy points out–they’re taco tables. These more stationary setups usually feature something that looks like a hubcap, which actually gives the ingredients out-of-this-world flavor. As meats cook on the raised middle part, onions, jalapenos, and other meats cook in the juices that collect in the sunken center. Check out the one on Vermont, near Venice.

Angelica Cemitas Poblana [Culver City-ish]
Venice Blvd west of Clarington, Los Angeles
Map

Blue Mexican seafood truck [Highland Park]
North Figueroa Blvd & Avenue 49, Los Angeles
Map

Taco stall [Koreatown]
Vermont and Venice, Los Angeles
(in the driveway of a business on the west side of Vermont, south of Venice.)
Map

Board Links: Best Roach Coach in L.A.?

Awesome Small Plates on Third

Tasca, a new joint in a small space on Third Street, specializes in real-deal Spanish-style tapas. They don’t have their wine license yet, so in the meantime, there’s zero corkage. And the food? While none of it is risk-taking, almost everything is well-balanced and delicious, says PoetKitty. This chef’s got talent.

Highlights:

Heirloom tomato gazpacho–topped with crab and avocado, it’s incredibly delish, with a refreshing citrusy twang.

Braised short ribs with butternut squash ravioli–these boneless meaty morsels dissolve in your mouth, and the ravioli is just decadent.

White asparagus gratin–with mild cheese and a drizzle of balsamic, it’s a must for white asparagus lovers.

Arancini with fontina in tomato sauce–fluffy and comforting, they’re a little taste of Sicily.

The interior is warm and cozy, lit by candles. It’s woefully understaffed, though. The average tapa costs about $11, but it takes quite a few to fill up (remember, tapas aren’t meant to be dinner!).

Tasca [Fairfax Village]
8108 Third St., Crescent Heights, Los Angeles
323-951-9890
Map

Board Links: Tasca–PK’s Review

Heat These Meats for a Treat

Summer, with its weekends of barbecues and picnics, turn a chowhound’s fancy to sausages, and two artisan producers are currently garnering raves.

Fatted Calf makes a mean mortadella–pork sausage with lard, spices, and pistachios. Sliced and grilled, it achieves a loose, creamy, and soft texture when hot, says Melanie Wong. Heating does similar wonders for their pork rillettes (which can be underspiced and overly creamy eaten unheated). Fatted Calf sells at the Berkeley and San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers’ markets.

Fra’Mani is the new sausage/salami company started by Paul Bertolli, ex-head chef of Oliveto. The factory is located in Berkeley with a retail storefront due to open soon. For now, products are available at gourmet groceries around the Bay. Fans of Fatted Calf should definitely check them out, says Morton the Mousse. They do Italian sausages in two varieties: Classic and Spicy. Both taste strongly of fennel (and could be juicier, says Alexandra Eisler), and come in a 12-oz package (3 links connected with twine and garnished with a bay leaf) for around $6-8. They’ve been spotted at Colusa Market, the Pasta Shop, Golden Produce, and elsewhere around the Bay.

Fatted Calf
Orders only, no retail: 510-301-9279

Fra’Mani
Orders only, no retail: 510-526-7000

Berkeley Farmers’ Market [East Bay]
Center St. and Martin Luther King, Berkeley
510-548-3333
Map

San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market [Embarcadero]
The Ferry Building
Foot of Market Street on the Embarcadero, San Francisco
415-353-5650
Map

Colusa Market [East Bay]
406 Colusa Ave., Kensington
510-527-7035
Map

Pasta Shop [Rockridge]
Market Hall
5655 College Ave., Oakland
510-547-4005
Map

Pasta Shop [East Bay]
1786 4th St., Berkeley
510-528-1786
Map

Golden Produce [Noe Valley]
172 Church St., San Francisco
415-431-1536
Map

Board Links: Fra’Mani at Colusa Market (Kensington)
fra’mani is SF?
Mortadella from Fatted Calf

Summer Thai Sweetness: Sticky Rice and Mango

Where to find Thai sticky rice with mango approaching the gold standard of Las Vegas’s legendary Lotus of Siam? The Berkeley Thai Temple offers both white and purple sticky rice, and the texture of the purple rice is especially good, says LJR. In fact, make it a whole Thai dessert party–the temple’s kanom krok (sweet coconut pancakes with green onion) are even better.

Champa Garden offers sticky rice with coconut ice cream. Their rice is sweeter than usual (and the usual is pretty damn sweet), but the portion is generous, says jiongliu.

In the city, Jitlada Thai uses black sticky rice with mango and offers coconut ice cream on the side–delightful and divine, determines Cynsa.

Down the Bay, Krung Thai tops their sticky rice with sprinkles of crispy rice, just like Lotus of Siam does.

Many places only offer sticky rice when mangoes are in season. The time is now!

Thai Buddhist Temple Mongkolratanaram [East Bay]
1911 Russell St., Berkeley
510-849-3419
Map

Champa Garden [Lake Meritt]
2102 8th Ave., Oakland
510-238-8819
Map

Jitlada Thai Cuisine [Japantown]
1826 Buchanan St., San Francisco
415-292-9027
Map

Krung Thai [South Bay]
640 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose
408-260-8224
Map

Krung Thai [South Bay]
580 N. Winchester Blvd., San Jose
408-248-3435
Map

Krung Thai [Peninsula]
194 Castro St., Mountain View
650-960-7077
Map

Board Links: Best sticky rice and mango

Groceries and Kebabs

Super King is like a nicer and cleaner Jons, with nine kinds of feta (including Italian and Hungarian), a zillion salamis and bolognas, ropes of cheese, and an impressive butcher department, says Briggs. And in addition to doing your grocery shopping, you can also get terrific chicken and beef lule kebabs.

Super King Market [Eagle Rock]
2716 San Fernando Rd., Edward, Los Angeles
323-225-0044
Map

Super King Market [South OC]
10500 Magnolia Ave., Cerritos, Anaheim
714-527-5809
Map

Board Links: Super King–Northeast LA’s Zabar?

Pizza Tailored to Taste

Fratelli’s is an old-school Italian place with old-school pleasures–Stella Artois and Sierra Nevada beer on tap, a nice garlicky spit-roasted chicken, and a highly satisfactory pizza, says Donny Mac. You can customize the toppings, crust, and even the sauce. Arrabiata sauce, for example, is excellent, spicy and garlicky. Extra-thin crust has nice flavor and texture, although it could be a bit crispier. Individual-sized pizzas tend to have thicker/puffier crusts, and the regular sauce is pretty bland.

Fratelli’s Pizza & Deli [East San Fernando Valley]
2064 Verdugo Blvd. #B, Park Place, Montrose
818-957-3060
Map

Board Links: Brief Review: Fratelli’s–Good Pizza in Montrose/Glendale/LCF

Duck, Duck … Soup!

Phoo D shares his recipe for a delicious duck soup making use of every last scrap of leftovers from a Chinese roast duck. It serves 4 to 8 as a first course.

Leftovers from 1 Chinese roast duck (skin, juice, meat, and bones)
Pinch of salt
Star anise
1” length of peeled ginger root, cut into thin matchsticks
3-5 mushrooms, sliced
2 bunches green onions. sliced
1/2-3/4 package of firm tofu, diced
6-10 leaves napa cabbage, sliced
White pepper to taste
Chopped cilantro leaves

Stock Preparation:

Place leftover duck meat, skin, fat, juice, and bones (making sure all large bones are cut) in a pan and cover with water. Add pinch of salt and several whole star anise. Bring to a boil and simmer for at least 2 hours (3 or 4 hours is even better). Add extra water as needed to keep scraps covered.

After letting the mixture cool slightly, strain to separate liquid from solids. After liquid has cooled some, store covered in the refrigerator.

Soup Making (about 30-45 minutes):

Scrape fat off of stock. Heat stock and add mushrooms, ginger, and the white parts of the green onions. After 20-25 minutes, taste stock and add white pepper to taste; then add napa cabbage. After a few more minutes, add some of the green parts of the green onion. When cabbage is tender, add tofu, cut into pieces, and return to a boil. At this point, the soup is ready. Serve with chopped cilantro as a garnish.

Board Links: Duck Soup Easy