Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dish on Dining: Binh Minh Quan

Discovering the Many Tastes of South Vietnam
338 12th St. (near Webster), Oakland
North of Chinatown
PH: 510.893.8136
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

I feel lucky that there are a number of options for a bowl of Vietnamese pho in Oakland’s Chinatown. But if you’re interested in finding out how Vietnamese food goes beyond the ubiquitous soup noodles, then you have to head to Binh Minh Quan.

Binh Minh Quan is a tiny restaurant that’s away from the pack. In fact, it’s north of Oakland’s Chinatown a few doors down from the corner of 12th and Webster Streets. (It sometimes gets eclipsed by another large Vietnamese pho shop right at the corner.) Looking from the outside, you might think it’s another dive, but walk in and you discover this nicely decorated Vietnamese oasis.

The restaurant went through renovations more than two years ago when owner Jenny Tang took over operations from her mother. Tang gave the place a classier vibe, with its brightly colored walls, ambient lighting and Vietnamese artifacts hanging on the walls.

The clientele is a mix of races and ages who come for the wide selection of Southern Vietnamese dishes on the menu. More than 130 items are listed, ranging from rice plates, pho, salads, noodles, porridge, fire pots (just like hot pots cooked at your table) and seafood. Binh Minh Quan is not your standard pho noodle joint. (There are only about a dozen soup noodles listed, and not all are pho.) Still, it attracts a steady crowd during the weekday lunch.

That’s when I visited the first few times, on my search for something to eat down in Chinatown during my lunch hour. I made the detour to Binh Minh Quan (which saves me about four blocks of walking to the heart of Chinatown) and tried these dishes:

Còm Tay Câm Thâp Câm (Combination in Clay Pot), $6.98. This is one of the nine lunch specials, served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays only. I’m a fan of clay pot rice dishes, so I tried this version that came with a mix of pork slices, chicken, shrimp, squid and broccoli. When it arrived, I was disappointed because just looking at it I could tell that it was a pedestrian effort. None of the ingredients looked necessarily unusual and it basically looked like a stir-fry dish over rice served in a clay pot. (I have yet to find a clay pot that matches the one made at Xyclo on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.) I also didn’t feel the ingredients were anything special, so that’s when I learned not to order any of the lunch specials and stuck with the regular menu.

Bún Gà (Vermicelli with Grilled Chicken), $5.98. Another standard lunch dish I typically order at Vietnamese restaurants is the bún, or cold vermicelli rice noodles served with some protein and a mix of vegetables and herbs. I ordered the grilled chicken bún and it was a nice medium-sized bowl (slightly smaller than what’s served at other spots). Still, the chicken was freshly grilled and tender, and I enjoyed the mix of carrot strips, daikon shreds, cucumber, mint and bean sprouts. The combined taste was good and satisfying.

Side note: I really love all the dinnerware used by Binh Minh Quan. It really adds a nice touch to the overall eating experience.

Hú Tién/Mì Thâp Câm (Combination Noodle Soup), $6.98. On a third visit for lunch, I decided to order a pho dish and got the combination special that includes shrimp balls, shrimp, squid and pork slices. (Other selections include the standard beef pho or one with snails.) Surprisingly, the pho at Binh Minh Quan is served with all the ingredients already in the bowl. I’m used to pho served with an accompanying plate of fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeno and limes that you add right before you eat. They do that for you at Binh Minh Quan, except the jalapeno and lime pieces are served separately for you to add. The overall dish was nice, with an excellent sweet broth and nicely cooked pho noodles. Instead of basil, the bowl came with bean sprouts, lettuce and chives already added in. I liked the fresh pieces of squid, but the thinly sliced pork was a bit chewy.

Because there’s only so much you can eat for lunch, I decided to visit Binh Minh Quan for dinner. The dinner crowd can be a bit quiet since the restaurant is away from the Chinatown scene, so I had no problems getting a table.

I contemplated getting the lâu, what they call a fire pot (just like a hot pot) where you cook your meal yourself at the table. The menu offers shrimp, catfish, goat and a mixture of everything in between. The prices range from $18.98 to $24.98 for the small pot and $23.98 to $29.98 for the large. I ended up not getting the fire pot, even though it sounded exciting (who doesn’t like playing with fire?), basically because I’m a lazy diner and I hate cooking and eating. I rather just eat.

So instead I ordered the Cá Kho Tô (Catfish Stewed in Clay Pot), $8.98. Despite my earlier poor experience with the clay pot for lunch, I wanted to try this dish which is a specialty of the Mekong Delta. One of my favorites I ate was at a restaurant in one of the towns along the delta. Binh Minh Quan’s version had a dark caramel sauce over the catfish steaks in the pot, so it was actually hard to see them. But when you bit into the white flesh, it was so light and fluffy. This was a great dish mixed with a bowl of rice.

Also for dinner I got one of the more exotic items on the menu, Éch Xào Xã Ot (Frog with Lemongrass), $14.98. Another Mekong specialty, I’m always up for a plate of pan-fried frog legs (sometimes they can taste like baby chicken wings and other times they’re slightly elastic like fish). The dish came piled with peanuts and parsley that it was hard to really see the frog legs, which were chopped into pieces. (My guess is there were four frogs chopped into pieces.) I also didn’t get a sense of the lemongrass because the legs were overpowered by fish sauce.

One common element in many of the dishes I had at Binh Minh Quan was that they were all slightly salty from a tad too much fish sauce. That was especially true in the clay pot dishes (both the one I had for lunch and the catfish). Still, the memories of the refreshing bun bowl and the tasty broth of the pho are enticing me to come back.

The dishes are all a bit smaller than what you might find elsewhere, but I don’t think you’ll find as much variety as you’ll get at Binh Minh Quan. If you’re ever hankering for authentic South Vietnamese dishes of snails, goat, frog legs, deer or boar, then you’ll probably find them here.

Single guy rating: 2.75 stars (Slightly Salty but Diverse)

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

Binh Minh Quan on Urbanspoon


agent713 said...

Chef Ben, I'm happy to report that during my recent vacation in Edmonton, AB I met up with a friend for dinner. She offered Pizza or Pho as dining options and, thanks entirely to your apetizzing reviews, I tried Pho. I can't remember exactly what I ate. Some sort of spicy chicken concoction but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Keep up the reviews. They're inspiring even for those of us who aren't in the Bay area.

Chef Ben said...

Agent713, I'm glad I inspired you to try something different! Way to go!

superglam said...

It's true, you can't beat the variety at BMQ. One of my favorites things to eat there is the roasted catfish. Not many people know you can buy a whole fish and then you roll with all the fresh veggies and rice paper.
I think it's the best place in Oakland. But hands down my favorite viet place in the bay is Pagaloc in SF.