Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Back for Seconds: Kim Huong

This is an occasional report on return visits to restaurants that I’ve already reviewed.

When Gimmicks Trump Authenticity
304 10th St. (at Harrison), Oakland
PH: 510.836.3139
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (except Tuesdays)
No reservations, credit cards accepted

Original visit: May 2007

When Kim Huong opened nearly two years ago, it drew a big lunchtime crowd of hungry eaters hunkered over their large bowls of pho. This casual Vietnamese spot was spacious and clean, with bright décor and a bar with a flat-screen TV showing Vietnamese pop videos.

But then it closed briefly for some unknown reason, and when it reopened a few weeks later, I had heard that it wasn’t a pho shop anymore. Since pho, the Vietnamese soup noodles, is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, I never thought about going back to Kim Huong since pho is no longer the specialty of the house.

Then I heard they were serving bento, which are the Japanese lunch boxes with various compartments to give you a variety of little tastes in a compact lunch. I couldn’t imagine how you could make a Vietnamese bento, so I decided to find out first hand.

When I visited last week, I didn’t have any problems getting a table. The waitress said I could choose any of the empty tables (there were only two tables of customers when I walked in a few minutes before noon, and then a couple of tables came after me). The décor looked pretty much the same, with the flat-screen TV showing some Vietnamese lion dance performance. But the lack of bustling customers gave the room an odd feeling, like visiting your grandmother’s house and hearing nothing but the sound of a distant TV tuned to some ethnic show.

For lunch, Kim Huong has created a section called “power lunch boxes,” which are the bento choices. Most of them cost $7, and you can choose a variety of entrees. Some were the typical Vietnamese-style dishes like lemongrass chicken. But there were also other Asian-influenced staples like curry chicken, mango beef, BBQ pork, Korean short ribs and tofu with eggplants.

I ordered the Grilled Barbeque Chicken bento, which came with steamed jasmine rice, one fresh imperial roll cut in two, a side salad, and fruit (today it was a sliced green apple).

Fresh imperial rolls are the ones that aren’t fried like spring rolls. Instead, moistened rice paper wrappers are used to create a roll, typically of shrimp, vermicelli noodles, pickled vegetables and herbs. The roll that came with my bento had the fresh ingredients, but instead of shrimp it was thin slices of tofu. It was served with a peanut sauce. It was OK, but by using tofu the overall flavor was weakened since tofu is, by nature, pretty bland.

The chicken was primarily the dark meat of thighs cut into thin slices. It tasted like the chicken sat in the marinade too long because it seemed slightly cured and a bit salty. While there were a lot of chicken pieces, it didn’t seem fresh or distinctive enough to make me want to eat more.

The only redeeming factor of the bento box was that the rice was light and fluffy, The side salad was your typical head lettuce with sweet-sour vinaigrette.

So it was clear the bento box was too gimmicky than tasty. They basically could have served all the components on a plate and charge 50 cents less.

This week I returned to give Kim Huong one more try, this time sticking with a more traditional specialty—the bun bo hue. This is a spicy beef noodle soup made with thick, round rice noodles instead of the typical thin, flat pho noodles. I ordered a large bowl for $7.50 (the $6.50 price tag advertised in the window was actually for the medium bowl).

The bowl was definitely large when it arrived, and it had the distinctive red coloring I remember when I first ordered it when Kim Huong initially opened. But it lacked the finesse of my original visit when the bowl seemed to be bursting with ingredients and a flurry of thinly sliced fresh onions on top.

As I dug in and ate my noodles, I would occasionally discover one or two pieces of cooked beef. Floating on the top were just two thinly sliced pieces of pork and two slices of what seemed like a ground pork cake. Near the bottom of the bowl were pieces of the blood cubes that I remembered eating in my first visit.

Even when adding in some jalapenos, bean sprouts and shredded cabbage that came on the side, there was no way of brightening up this bowl. Plus, it didn’t seem that substantial. The bowl was mostly spicy red broth with a regular helping of noodles and just a few pieces of the beef. To me, it was like a medium order of bun bo hue served in a very large bowl.

During this second visit, the dining room was more empty than last week. And I noticed that most of the customers weren’t Vietnamese or Chinese, but mostly business office workers looking for their Asian lunch fix. I figured this must be their target customers because the prices were slightly high for what you get and, again, there’s the odd offering of Japanese bento boxes with Vietnamese food.

It’s too bad that Kim Huong didn’t stick with its original concept of a pho shop. This new version is misguided, confusing and well, boring.

Update experience (previous 2 stars): It’s a downhill rating for this spot, now at 1.5 stars.


Anonymous said...

Today, which is so dreary and wet (even if we need the rain), would be THE perfect day for some of that spicy beef noodle soup. single Guy Chef, uh, do you deliver? ;)

Passionate Eater said...

Sounds like the difference between their large and medium is just more broth. Pathetic.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's a steep downhill slide! I tried the Bun bo hue last year and loved the broth (the trotters and cubes were a bit much for me...) The bento idea is just wrong too.

lani said...

If you're ever in the San Jose area you should try Bun Bo Hue An Nam on Story Road. That is their specialty dish and it is the best I've had so far even better than the ones I had in Vietnam last March. And if you're feeling adventurous Andrew Zimmern style, you can ask for the dac biet (special) w/ ox penis.