Bánh Khọt and Bánh Xèo at Hà Tiên Quán Restaurant (San Gabriel, CA)

While in San Jose (CA) at a Vietnamese restaurant, friends KirkJ and his wife ordered and loved a specialty that I had never heard of—bánh khọt, that he points out is difficult to find in the Seattle area. It’s apparently equally scarce elsewhere, not as common as its cousin, bánh xèo, whose batter is made from the same ingredients of rice flour and coconut milk. Rather than the omelet-like presentation of the latter, bánh khọt seem like little tartlets, grilled in special cast iron pans that look like Japanese takoyaki or Danish ebelskiver pans. The cakes are a little more than 2 inches across and are topped with some sort of savory filling, usually fresh shrimp or chopped or ground dried shrimp. Bánh khọt are traditionally eaten as breakfast or snack in Vietnam, and by wrapping a lettuce leaf and herbs around them before dipping them in nước chấm. The ideal examples are crispy on the bottoms and edges, but soft in the center. Sometimes, a dollop of coconut cream is spooned or drizzled on top.

Bánh khọt and bánh xeo are wrapped with lettuce leaves and herbs, dipped in nuoc cham

Banh khot and banh xeo are wrapped with lettuce leaves and herbs, dipped in nuoc cham

As my wife and I were on our last full day away from home, what better opportunity to try finding bánh khọt than in the San Gabriel Valley, home to many Vietnamese restaurants. A quick internet search turned up Hà Tiên Quán in San Gabriel, apparently the only restaurant that makes them in the valley. A few restaurants in Orange County have them as well.

Even if three of us came for a specific reason, looking over the menu was treading in unfamiliar territory. Some of the standard repertoire of Vietnamese dishes are here, but most of it, written only in Vietnamese and its romanized alphabet, is probably unrecognizable to those unacquainted with the cuisine in and around Hà Tiên in western Vietnam, where the family who owns the restaurant is from.

Bánh khọt and bánh xèo were pictured on the menu right next to each other. We decided to try both. Almost as an afterthought, we also asked for two types of fried spring rolls: chả gìo ré and chả gìo thường.

The presentation of the bánh khọt (☆☆) was striking, cups of yellow shells with an orange filling of what I imagine was ground shrimp. It was hard to tell since I detected no shrimp taste, let alone taste of any kind. In fact, turmeric’s earthy quality dominated. These were not the crisped shells that I was hoping for either, just rice flour’s unmistakable chewiness. I have to say though that the  shells were admirably thin.

Banh khot

Banh khot

Equally disappointing was the bánh xèo (☆☆) that was filled with a mountain of bean sprouts, too much for my liking, and so few shrimp that we all asked, “Where’s the shrimp?” That was it, nothing else. The crepe was also coated with a glistening layer of frying oil. As with the bánh khọt, turmeric broadcast its color and flavor. This dish does not hold a candle to the bánh xèo at Greenleaf in my neck of the woods.

Banh xeo

Banh xeo

In both cases, nước chấm provided needed zip to otherwise bland entrées.

It was fortunate that we added fried spring rolls to our order at the last minute, or the whole meal would’ve been a disappointment. The menu showed four kinds. With no English translation, we asked the waiter what the differences were. What we heard was though the filling was the same (ground pork mainly), the wrappings were different, which the waiter said he couldn’t explain well enough. Chả gìo thường (☆☆½) is the more familiar spring roll wrapped in wheat flour skin, which makes for a very crackly crunch. The revelation was chả gìo ré (☆☆☆) because the wrapping can be an incredibly lacy rice flour netting that is time-consuming to make and therefore uncommon. HTQ may have used a vermicelli noodle shortcut instead. As the waiter said, the filling was made with pork.

Cha gio thuong

Cha gio thuong

Cha gio re

Cha gio re

It might be a better idea to return here for their regional dishes.

Hà Tiên Quán Restaurant
529 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(Cash only)

Chicharrones, Filipino Style

While at my father-in-law’s house in Southern California, my brother-in-law brought over chicharron curls (Pepe’s Estilo Casero brand) that are conveniently bite-sized and come in several flavors. Though tasty, they were not what caught my attention. He said many Filipinos like to dip them in spicy vinegar (such as Mother’s Best sinamak that he also brought over), which typically contains garlic and siling labuyo chile peppers that resemble Thai bird’s-eye chiles.

When a bit of soy sauce, lime juice and vinegar are combined (not pictured above), the concoction adds a nice tart, zippy and savory counterpoint to the fried pork rinds. Interesting that fatty foods and vinegar go so well together.

pepe estllo

Tasty Noodle House: Dalian Cuisine in the San Gabriel Valley

Friends of mine recently lamented that their dining experience at Dalian House in Bellevue (Washington) was forgettable. They wondered if they’d ordered the right things at a restaurant that presumably serves Dalian food. This got us to exchanging emails about the cuisine of the second largest city in the Chinese northeast province of Liaoning. Dalian’s proximity to the sea has blessed the cuisine with all sorts of marine creatures. When reviewing for the LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold wrote about the ecstatic dishes that he had at Tasty Noodle House in San Gabriel, some of which featured jellyfish head and sea cucumber.

As it happens, I am in the San Gabriel Valley with my wife’s family, having just returned from New Zealand. My wife posed the idea of eating out at a Chinese restaurant tonight. Well, what about Tasty Noodle House, I suggested. Everyone was game. So, four of us went there for dinner. According to Gold, when the menu changed from a printed sheet to a beautifully designed laminated one sometime in 2010, so had the menu morphed into authentic Dalian. Sure enough, seafood made more of an appearance: shrimp, fish, squid, oyster and the aforementioned sea cucumber and jellyfish. I also read somewhere that vinegar figures more prominently in Dalian cuisine than in other Chinese cooking. Pickled napa is used in several dishes at TNH, most of the appetizers are dressed with vinegar sauce, meats are marinated and a bottle of black vinegar is on every table. Dalian specialties of buns (bao), pancakes and dumplings are also well represented on the menu, items that have gotten generally positive Yelp reviews.

If sea cukes and jellyfish aren’t your thing, also challenging on the menu are pig organ meats: intestine and kidney. Still, there are many dishes that less adventurous palates, such as ours, can eat. We opted for four items. Tender Beef Pan-Fried with Scallion in Brown Sauce (☆☆☆) has alliums aplenty. Copious slices of brown and green onions didn’t detract from a very savory, peppery brown sauce that appears on many of the menu’s other dishes. The beef could have lived up to its description more; it was slightly chewy.

Tender Beef Pan-Fried with Scallion in Brown Sauce

Tender Beef Pan-Fried with Scallion in Brown Sauce

I thought of puff pastry when I took a bite of Scallion Pan Cakes (☆☆½), a popular item on the menu. They were incredibly thin yet consisted of many fine layers of dough, the outermost one crackery and delaminating in spots. Bits of green onions were visible but whose flavor was barely detectable. What took away from otherwise wonderful pancakes was the taste of old, rancid frying oil.

Scallion Pan Cakes

Scallion Pan Cakes

Sautéed Green Beans (☆☆☆) were crisp, garlicky and cooked with Dalian dried baby shrimp.

Sauteed Green Beans

Sauteed Green Beans

The best entrée was Eggplant Pan-Fried with Dried Baby Shrimp in Brown Sauce (☆☆☆½), luscious, silky vegetables that are less heavily laden with oil than elsewhere, in a beautifully restrained yet flavorful sauce.

Eggplant Pan-Fried with Dried Baby Shrimp in Brown Sauce

Eggplant Pan-Fried with Dried Baby Shrimp in Brown Sauce

After such a satisfying meal, the menu invites return visits. To make things even better, the wait staff is far and away the friendliest we’ve ever encountered at a Chinese restaurant. Strange that I’d never noticed before, but the restaurant is located in the same strip mall as Golden Deli, Southern Mini Town and both Ton-Chan and Newport Seafood Restaurant before the former closed (replaced by Benten Ramen) and the latter moved to bigger digs down the street. I might be forgiven because Tasty Noodle House is at the far western end, past the point where the strip mall makes a right angle turn. Again, this begs the question whether Las Tunas Plaza is the best mini-mall for foodies in all of the San Gabriel Valley. It keeps surprising me.

Update (2-20-15): We were disappointed by a return meal for lunch.

The Pickled Napa, Pork Belly and Frozen Tofu Stewed in Clay Pot (☆☆) that I had high hopes for was a soup rather than stew, which in itself is not a bad thing. But it changed my expectations of it. The broth was seemingly flavored only by the pickled napa, thus becoming tart. Instead of unctuous slices, the pork belly was tough, not having seen any prior braising, again a shift in expectation, not chef’s intent. Long, linguine-shaped starch noodles were slippery to pick up and translucent and firm  enough that they ironically seemed like jellyfish strands. The interesting ingredient was frozen tofu. When these soybean wonders are frozen, they take on a spongy texture that makes it easier to absorb other flavors. But, as the broth was one-dimensional for my taste, there wasn’t much to assimilate.

Pickled Napa, Pork Belly and Frozen Tofu Stewed in Clay Pot

Pickled Napa, Pork Belly and Frozen Tofu Stewed in Clay Pot

Of the two kinds we ordered, Cabbage Pork Dumplings (☆☆☆) was tastier than Leek and Fish Dumplings (☆☆½). A generous dozen crowded each plate; at $6.99 and $7.99, the dumplings are a bargain. They’re meant to be eaten quickly, dipped in soy sauce and black vinegar, for they cool off quickly. Their thick skins were practically a necessity as the dumplings tended to stick to the plate as the dough lost moisture; anything thinner, the dumplings would have torn. More to the point, they’re able to withstand pan-frying as potstickers.

Cabbage pork dumplings (top), leek and fish dumplings (bottom)

Cabbage pork dumplings (top), leek and fish dumplings (bottom)

Tasty Noodle House
827 W. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA
(Cash only)

Of New Zealand Dahlias

Not only was I captivated by Hagley Park’s begonia display but its dahlia border garden, too. The dahlias occupy a small strip along the periphery of the much larger rose garden, a great attraction in itself. The stunning variety represents the hybridizer’s craft. On one end are the single-row specimens from their native Mexico. How they were hybridized into much more complex forms is and will remain a mystery to me. This amazing morphological variation is showcased in the much larger dahlia garden section by flowers developed by New Zealand horticulturists, including the intriguing ‘cactus’ varieties.

Riccarton Farmers Market (Christchurch, NZ)

I’m a sucker for farmers markets. It’s not only because they sell fresh local produce, but the fact that the produce may be native to the area and the prepared foods reflective of what the locals eat. Of those I’ve visited in the U.S., my personal favorite is not my city’s Pike Place Market, Seattle’s pride and joy and tourist destination, but Honolulu’s KCC Saturday Market. I love that you can get a great variety of tropical fruits and mind-boggling number of ono grindz there.

One of the largest on New Zealand’s South Island is Christchurch’s Riccarton Farmers Market, uniquely situated on a public reserve called Riccarton House & Bush. On Saturdays, farmers and food vendors line the area near the historic Riccarton House along the Avon River. Toward the northern end of the site is an ancient grove of kahikatea trees and throughout the grounds are trees planted over 150 years ago, including a tall, mature Tasmanian blue gum planted in 1857 that sits prominently next to Deans Cottage.

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Curry Ramen at Samurai Bowl (Christchurch, NZ)

My daughter and her family dine at Samurai Bowl often. It used to be once a week. I suspect that it’s not the parents’ decision necessarily but my five-year old grandson’s, who seems never to tire of their miso ramen. Today, just my daughter and I had lunch here, while the kids were in school. When served our meals, waitress asked daughter, “Where’s your son?” I myself have eaten here several times, enjoying their solid bowls of ramen more than their other items.

Looking over the menu, I decided to have curry ramen, despite the lackluster experience I had with their karaage curry-don almost a year ago. This choice turned out to be a good one. I’ve only had a very few curry ramens before, but none this good. The broth, slightly thick, mild and mildly sweet, is an excellent example of the flavor of Japanese-style curry. Unlike Samurai Bowl’s curry-don, there was no grittiness or pronounced coriander seed flavor. Maintaining their firmness throughout the meal were the medium-sized, curly egg noodles. And what wonderfully succulent, flavorful and fatty slices of roasted pork belly that melted in my mouth. The menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) were a tad salty and the extra-cost ajitsuke tamago (half-boiled egg) was plonked into the hot broth, straight from the fridge, the yolk half-congealed and still cold.

I can say that I’d now order curry ramen (☆☆☆½) over their signature samurai ramen in the future—without the egg.

Samural Bowl
Shop 5/574 Colombo Street
Christchurch, NZ 8011
03-379 6752

The Burnham at CBD Bar (Christchurch, NZ)

Of the pizzas she’s had in Christchurch, my daughter likes best the wood-fired ones served, not at a pizzeria but a brewery out in the borough of Woolston. Known for award-winning beers that they’ve been crafting since 2010, Cassels & Sons added a gastropub to the brewery. Enter the pizzas. I’ve eaten there three times on the way back from Sumner, the Port Hills or The Tannery, of which the brewery is a part. Like my daughter and her family, my impression of the pizzas has been very good.

C&S opened CBD Bar in Christchurch recently with almost the same pizza menu, with slight differences. Its presence near the central business district (CBD) attracts the big city folk—and would make it more convenient for my NZ family to get a good pizza.

CBD Bar lists 13 wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas on the menu. All of them are named for local geographic areas and nearby towns. Mine was the Burnham, simply prepared with tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, olives, red onions and mushrooms, all from the Woolston Market. The tomato sauce is fresh tasting, with no strong herbal or zesty notes, that places more flavor emphasis on the other ingredients. The only complaint I had were burnt, bitter spots on the bottom that a minute less in the oven could solve. Otherwise, this was practically a perfect pie (☆☆☆½).

208 Madras St
Christchurch Central
Christchurch 8011
03-379 4223

Big Robby at Mr Burger (Christchurch, NZ)

It was a spur of the moment decision. One of those times when your intention suddenly changes as a fleeting thought goes through your mind. I was on my way to Re:START Mall to buy lunch from one of the (shipping) container food businesses until I walked past a food truck stationed just east of the Worcester Blvd bridge over the Avon. I’d gone by Mr Burger several times in the past, not giving it much thought—until today. This time, I looked at the menu posted on the truck’s side for a few minutes, then continued on. But, I stopped not more than 20 feet beyond. It occurred to me that I’ll be leaving New Zealand in a few days, and I hadn’t yet had a burger, Kiwi-style, on this latest visit.

It’s an odd reality that most burgers in New Zealand are sold by fish-and-chips shops. I’m sure there’s an interesting history behind that. Anyway, no doubt because of my expectations in the U.S., I had never even considered the idea of getting a burger where the main offering was fried fish. Even my favorite fish-and-chippery in Christchurch, Coppell Place Seafoods, has one on the menu.

There I was, in front of Mr Burger, a “real” burger enterprise (albeit a mobile one), considering my options. I studied the menu to look for a quintessentially Kiwi sandwich with fried egg and beet slice (called beetroot here). The Big Robby came closest, also including onion, cheese, lettuce, tomato, bacon and double patties but no beetroot. Predictably, I got a monstrous sandwich, fully 4” high, a blow to sensible portion sizes. That’s not all. A stiff wind from the east made it hard to have a pleasant al fresco experience. Sea gulls were gathering around me, including one that alighted on my table, waiting for handouts. Cheeky, as Kiwis would say.

The first bite was comical, the fillings pooching out at the other end, sauce running down my fingers and hands, lettuce and tomato hanging out of my mouth. Every bite was no less messy. I must’ve gone through a half dozen napkins. The patties were tender and high-quality New Zealand grass-fed beef. Kiwis like their bacon flabby instead of crispy as most Americans would prefer. A better bun I would be hard pressed to recall, soft and with enough gluten to resist falling apart. Rather than a Thousand Island-like sauce, a sweetish barbecue sauce lent an interesting smokiness. In summary, the Big Robby was a fine burger sandwich (☆☆☆), messy to the end, over-the-top maybe but culturally fitting. I couldn’t finish a quarter of it. Maybe I should’ve fed it to the gull.

Mr Burger
Worcester Bridge
Christchurch, NZ

Double-Flowered Begonias, Townend House (Christchurch, NZ)

In January-March, flower lovers are treated to one of the most spectacular displays of begonias in the world. Townend House, part of the Hagley Park Conservatory, has a seasonal exhibit of double-flowered begonias, many of them hybridized by New Zealand horticulturists. All I could do was gawk—and snap away with my camera.

Redwood + Ivy, Hagley Park (Christchurch, NZ)

Hagley Park in Christchurch has some magnificent sequoia redwood specimens. I happened to be walking past one when I noticed something odd. Seemingly growing right out of the base of the trunk was an ivy, incredibly old by the looks of it, appearing more like tropical vines, a growth that needed to be cut out. It apparently is doing no damage to the tree. The more I stared at it, the more I admired its artistic effect and the chutzpah it took for the caretakers to leave it alone.