Friday, June 12, 2009

Dish on Dining: Anh Hong

Big Locale for a Few Select Dishes
2067 University Ave., Berkeley
PH: 510.981.1789
Open daily for dinner, 5–10:30 p.m.; lunch, Mon. –Sat., 11 a.m.–2 p.m.
Major credit card, reservations accepted

I spotted the grand opening sign for Anh Hong in downtown Berkeley last year while riding on the bus, and the Vietnamese restaurant still has a temporary sign in the front when I visited recently.

The first time was for dinner with my friend Peter after we visited the new David Brower Center. When we walked in, we noticed how huge the space was. It probably seemed more expansive to us since the place was nearly empty.

Anh Hong is decorated nicely with contemporary furnishings painted in bright colors. But the layout was confusing to us. With a bar in the middle of the room (and never really in use it seems), it had the feel of a sports bar especially because of the flat screen TVs on the walls.

Looking over the menu, Anh Hong promotes a seven-course beef dinner, which sounds interesting if we were heavy meat eaters, but we’re not. So instead we started with an order of the Chim Cút Quay or Roasted Quails ($9).

The two half pieces of quail had a nice dark coloring, and tasted fine with its tender bits of meat and crispy skin. I did feel like the quail seemed deep-fry instead of roasted because of the shimmering skin and oily feeling it had as I used my fingers to eat them.

Peter ordered the Gà Cari or Chicken Curry ($10.25), which seemed elegantly plated than what I normally see at local Vietnamese places. I got a sense that Anh Hong wanted to be classier than just a pho shop. The curry, with a variety of vegetables, was tasty but it was on the watery side.

I ordered the Com Tay Câm or Claypot Combination ($10.50). I’ve been on the search for a really good Vietnamese claypot rice dish since the one I tried at Xyclo in Oakland. But so far nothing has compared, and Anh Hong’s version didn’t put up much of a challenge. While the ingredients were fresh, the juices of the chicken and shrimp didn’t seem like they had time to meld together. The vegetables used were also pretty mundane.

I feel like I can’t visit a Vietnamese place without trying their pho, the soup noodle dish that I love because of the thin noodles and rich broth. So I returned to Anh Hong by myself one Saturday for lunch.

Again, the place was relatively empty. I would guess that both times I was there, the room was maybe 10 percent filled.

Surveying its lunch menu, I found that Anh Hong served just one pho called the Pho Combination with meatballs, flank steak, beef steak and beef brisket. (The pho is listed at $7.95 for regular size and $8.95 for a large, but they’re running a special right now taking a $1 off.) I was disappointed that they offered only one option for pho during lunch (most of the other items on the lunch menu were rice plates) but then I realized that I typically get the beef combination when I go out eating pho anyway.

The pho came with the side plate of bean sprouts, basil, jalapeno slices and a lemon wedge, and the bowl itself with steaming with meatballs, beef slices and thinly sliced red onions. The thin beef slices weren’t near the pinkish side that I like, but they were good and tender. What was significant about the pho was the broth was unusually sweet. Not sweet like dessert, but almost like they added a dash of sugar. I’m sure it could be the hours of simmer beef bones or possible a dash of MSG, but I thought it was addictive. While it’s not the best pho bowl I had, it was decent.

After these two visits, I’m still not sure what’s the deal with Anh Hong. I found on its Web site that they have several locations (one in San Francisco, Milpitas and San Jose), including a Las Vegas location. The food attempts to be ambitious with its plating, but the taste is just average and the choices seem limited (definitely if you’re looking for pho). I guess this confusion (and the slightly higher prices when compared to other ethnic restaurants in Berkeley) may explain why their huge space is never bustling with customers.

Now I’m wondering if they’ll ever replace that temporary sign.

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (Quiet dining)

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

Anh Hong on Urbanspoon

Recent reviews:
Rn74: “All Aboard on a Glamorous Wine Bar”
Otoro: “Latest Hip Addition to Hayes Valley”
Bund Shanghai: “Hearty Northern Chinese Cuisine Done Right”


Anonymous said...

Anh Hong is KNOWN for the 7 course of beef. They do scale down the portions so 1 order is barely enough to fill me up and I'm a light eater.

It starts with usually a light salad, followed by a couple of sausages (I think you only get 1 or 2 of each). The sausages are the size of skinny finger. And it has a beef "hot pot" that is my personal favorite. And the meal concludes usually with a watery ground beef porridge/ jook.

The taste is usually pretty good and is meant for large parties that like to drink lots of beer.

I've been going to the Anh Hong in San Jose for years and never even knew that they had anything else on the menu besides the beef!

I'd give it another shot and go for the specialty this time. If they have the beef that you can cook at your table (either in water/ vinegar or grilled) I'd say that's the best option.

Cookie said...

Hum...why do I have the feeling that this anonymous person might have something to do with the restaurant staff??? :)
The bowl of pho looks pretty good but then again you can get it pretty much anywhere in Chinatown for about $5. The roasted quails look pretty yummy too. I remember having them fried at Chinese restaurants as a kid. YUM!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm - after rereading my comment, I guess it does seem like I work for the restaurant but I don't - just a Vietnamese girl from Orange County that likes a lot of beef. I couldn't figure out how to get my name to pop up on the comment and I was in a hurry.

Karen - no affiliation to Anh Hong!

Patrick said...

I'd have to agree with Anon that the 7 Courses of Beef is the thing to get at Anh Hong. It's their specialty and what they do best. With a lot of Asian restaurants, you really need to figure out what they do well and stick to that. It's all I get at the Anh Hong and Pagolac restaurants in SF. And despite the name, it's really not that heavy because each serving of beef is just a little bit that you wrap with the paper crepe and stuff a bunch of lettuce, bean sprouts, and pickled veggies into. I feel more stuffed after a 12" Subway's sandwich than this meal.

I guess it's like going to a pho restaurant that has "pho" in the name and ordering the rice plates. Sure, it might be decent but I'd wager that the pho is the thing to get.

Single Guy Ben said...

Hmm, sounds like I have to get my stomach ready for that 7-course beef dinner!

Dazy said...

We don't go dine-in there regularly since it is not close to our place. I make it a point to come every time I'm in the neighborhood. We get filled up and usually have leftovers to take home.