Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Dish on Dining: Kim Huong

In Search of Central Vietnamese Cuisine
304 10th St. (at Harrison), Oakland
Chinatown
PH: 510.836.3139
Cash only


There’s not a lot of lunch options around my work in Oakland’s Lake Merritt area, which is why I generally pack a lunch and eat at my desk. Not a pretty sight. But on beautiful California days, I’ll walk the 10 blocks from my office to Chinatown. So when I heard there was a new Hue-style Vietnamese restaurant open, I put on my walking shoes and headed south.

Kim Huong is a new casual Vietnamese restaurant at the corner of 10th Street and Harrison. Some people mentioned that it was a Hue-style restaurant, which got me even more excited because I rarely got a chance to eat much Hue cooking during my visit to Vietnam in January. (Hue is a city in Central Vietnam and its cuisine is considered the finest style of cooking in that country.)

The restaurant is refreshingly bright with a fancy bar and flat-screen TV (which always seems to be showing Vietnamese singing programs. Ironically, I think the station is from San Jose.) During my first visit, I took a seat at the bar counter watching some odd Vietnamese karaoke program.

Scanning the menu, I was disappointed to not find a lot of Hue-style dishes. There were a few different dishes, but the large majority is your typical pho, rice dishes, and bun bowls. There were also a lot of chicken dishes, which I found unusual because beef and pork are often the meat of choice at the restaurants I visited in Vietnam. (Must be catering to American tastes, or maybe they have a great chicken supplier?)

I decided on a bun soup noodle dish because it reminded me of one of the best soup noodles I had during my trip. This particular dish was the Bun Man Muoc Leo, which was rice noodles in a soup base with shrimp, fish and thinly sliced pork. Oh, and I ordered the large for $5.95.
First off, let me say that the large order is huge. I could virtually put my entire face in the wide bowl of bun placed before me. (Hmmm, pho facial anyone?) It came with a nice plate of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, jalepeno slices and shredded cabbage. The broth was nice, but I was instantly struck by the fishy taste of all the seafood. The shrimp was rubbery and not pleasant to eat. There were many pieces of white fish (my guess is red snapper) but they were bland. The bun left me full but unsatisfied.

Despite my lackluster first bite, I convinced a co-worker of mines to take the 10-block trek for a second visit.

This time, I went for the “chef’s recommendation” on the menu and ordered a bowl of Bun Bo Hue (yes, one of the few Hue dishes on the menu). My friend ordered the popular Southern style Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio (rice vermicelli bowl with grilled pork and spring rolls). I also ordered the Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese crepe that’s supposed to be an appetizer but ironically came after our two bowls of noodles.
My Bun Bo Hue was fantastic. I ordered a small bowl for $4.95 because I wanted to save room for the Banh Xeo, but it was still very filling. Set in a slightly spicy rich broth with a reddish hue (the color, not the city), my bun was filled with lots of thinly sliced beef, pork tendons and blood cubes. (Yes, you read that right. Dracula’s special.) Needless to say, I slurped up the noodles and beef, but didn’t really touch the pork tendons (kind of like tripe but thicker) but I did take a bite or two of the blood cubes (almost like red Jello and tasteless, really). But the overall flavoring of the broth definitely lived up to the chef’s recommendations.
My friend’s bun, which was not the soup version but the dry version where you pour fish sauce over your noodles, looked good and large. But I thought the rice noodles used were a bit too thick for what I’m used to. And the Banh Xeo was this crispy crunchy omelette-like crepe that had bits of shrimp and bacon. It was incredibly crunchy (which made me worry about all the oil needed to get it so crispy) but was filled with a huge mound of bean sprouts. The moisture from the bean sprouts made the crunchy crepe soft easily. The Banh Xeo also came with a huge plate of lettuce that we were supposed to use to wrap the crepe with. I took it home and made a salad instead.
Side note: The service is hit and miss. This is definitely a family business and it seemed like the older woman busing the table can get a bit confused and doesn’t speak any English. Most of the orders are taken by the men. And everyone was speaking Cantonese--not just to the customers but to each other as well.

Paying: If you’ve never been to a Vietnamese restaurant in California, be prepared to look for a number at your table. If you see a number, then you know that means you walk up to the cashier in the back and pay for your order by giving the number of your table. If you wait for a check to be brought to you, you may be waiting for awhile.
Kim Huong serves up decent Vietnamese lunch fair. It’s a step up from other Vietnamese pho spots, but not quite fancy like restaurants such as Xyclos in the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood. And can it really be called a Hue-style restaurant when they only offer a few Hue dishes? (Even though it’s only been open for two months, the menu already has blackened out items. Wonder if those were the Hue dishes and they realized California isn’t ready for them?)

The prices are extremely reasonable for the large bowls served up and the decor is definitely nice for a lunch with business clients, but don’t expect to be wowed. You’ll have to, unfortunately, travel the thousands of miles to Hue.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (perfect for new diners to Vietnamese cuisine)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

4 comments:

Eric said...

I'm disappointed to hear that the menu did not have more Hue specialties, but I will have to check out the bun bo hue at some point, as that is one of my favorite dishes!

By any chance, did the restaurant offer bun rieu, or even better, bun rieu oc, the version with snails? I'm always on the hunt for a good bowl of that stuff.

Chef Ben said...

Hey Eric, yes, definitely have the Bun Bo Hue, a sure deal.

I checked the menu and they do have both Bun Rieu and Bun Rieu Oc. But I doubt they have it with snails, though. Because it says it's just bean cake and periwinkle. (??) The Bun Rieu is mostly shrimp and crab paste and tomato, which sounds interesting, but I have to say I'm a bit wary of ordering anything seafood there because of the fishy smell of my Bun Mam. When I go back to Kim Huong, I'm probably sticking with the meats.

Eric said...

Thanks for the response. Some restaurants translate "oc" as "periwinkle" on their menus, while others translate it as "snail." In any case, I think that the item used is the same: a mollusc, or a sea relative of the snail.

It is disappointing to hear about the unfresh seafood. As you said, that would definitely put a damper on the bun rieu. I am excited to try the bon bo hue though.

Chef Ben said...

Huh, never knew periwinkle also means snail. I imagined the bowl was going to come out with all these pretty flowers. ;-) Thanks Eric, you helped me learn a new thing today!