Sunday, December 14, 2008

My obsession with Vietnamese food part 1

I've decided to periodically pay homage to some of my favorite Vietnamese dishes simply because I'm totally addicted to this cuisine. I find that I must somehow satiate my desire at least twice or three times a week, so I might as well document my constant hunt for the next Vietnamese dish so you can also partake on some of these delicious findings.

I'm going to start with cha ca thang long -- dill turmeric fish. This dish is always served with a plateful of fresh greens including lettuce, mint, perilla leaves and cilantro -- the variation may change depending on where you go but you'll be sure to get some, if not all of the herbs. A little plate of peanuts and sesame seed cracker are also given as well as a plate of rice vermecelli and a small bowl of shrimp paste sauce.

I'm not sure if there is a correct way to eat it, but what I like to do is to layer the bottom of my bowl with some vermecelli, then drizzle some shrimp paste sauce on it before I break apart the various greens and top with the fish and wilted onions and dill. The shrimp paste sauce can be intimidating to the untrained palate as it is slightly pungent, and doesn't look very appetizing. However, if you can get over that, it is what binds the entire dish together.

Cha ca thang long
is not a cheap dish -- generally it's around $13 although the highest I've come across has been $15. There are quite a few places which serve it up, and I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of what's available out there, but here are just a sampling of what I've found.

Ha Noi
(9082 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-901-8108)
When the original owners still were in charge, this place had some of the best dill turmeric fish around. I was never partial to catfish, but somehow, the way they prepared it here was that the marinade took away any of the muddy taste which lingered on the flesh. Under new ownership, the fish no longer tastes as good, nor is it as tender. The accompanying shrimp paste sauce is also very watery tasting.

Vien Dong
(14271 Brookhurst Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843 Ph: 714-531-8253)
One of the first places to offer up this dish, Vien Dong's version uses snapper instead of catfish. My husband really liked the version here, but I thought it was just okay. I didn't like the shrimp paste sauce here and that is essential in how the whole thing ends up tasting.

Ha Noi Avenue
(8432 Westminster Blvd, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-898-8838)
The original owners of Ha Noi restaurant recently opened Ha Noi Avenue serving up dishes using their old recipes. Catfish is used here and it's as moist and tender as I remembered when I first had it at the old location. Although it is slightly greasy, the fresh dill and sliced onions are perfectly charred and caramelized because the sizzling platter always arrives splattering from the heat. The shrimp paste sauce here is about as perfect as you'll get with the right amount of savoriness to sweetness.

Canton aka Chao Ca Cho Cu
(8550 Westminster Ave, Westminster, CA 92683 Ph: 714-892-2022)
To date, this is my favorite place for cha ca thang long. I'm not 100% sure what kind of fish they use here -- could be snapper, could be sole -- but it's damn good! The fish is moist and very tender and all the accompanying sides are fresh and flavorful. This is also the most expensive one of all topping out at $14.99 and the portion isn't any bigger than at the other restaurants. The reason why this place takes first place over Ha Noi Avenue is because I am not a huge fan of catfish. Otherwise, in terms of flavor, I'd say Ha Noi Avenue is the best all around.

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