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Eats - Vietnamese Restaurants

Vietnese Restaurant Etiquette
There are only really three odd things about Vietnamese restaurants.

A) They will hand you a menu with literally hundreds of items, then ask for your order 10 seconds later. I can only guess that the menu is a formality and most people already know what they're going to order.

B) They typically don't bring your bill to your table; you go to the register to pay. Someone told me this is actually French custom, where money is not flashed at the table and you can sit for as long as you want.

C) They will bring you mysterious sauces and empty bowls and not explain what they are for. If you can't figure it out, ask...or just use them for whatever seems logical. I do all the time.

Story Road Sandwich Bargain
I highly recommend Saigon's Bakery & Sandwiches in the mall at the corner of McLaughlin & Story. Buy two sandwiches and the third one is free. Order the Hanoi special sandwich; the rest of kind of plain. I like these better than Lee's, which is turning into the Starbucks of Vietnamese sandwich shops. They don't speak a lot of English, but communication is not an issue; just be sure you're standing in the right line or they'll totally ignore you.
953 McLaughlin Ave.
April 2, 2006

Fresh French Bread
One of the holy grails I've been searching for is a Vietnamese bakery in San Jose that bakes fresh French breads. My friend Michael led me to Lee's Sandwich Shop on King south of Tully (in the second minimall down). As the neon sign proclaims, fresh bread is baked hourly (although not always on Saturdays, apparently). Baguettes are $1. Sandwich rolls are 25 cents. There's also a big assortment of lunch specials. 05/03

Vietnamese Restaurant List
This site features a huge list of Vietnamese restaurants, mostly in California.
Restaurants in San Mateo
Not extensive, but accurate from what I've seen.

Cities covered: San Jose, San Mateo, Milpitas, San Francisco, Sacramento

Wes note: After having eaten at Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose and San Francisco for three years now, I can safely say that San Jose restaurants are head and shoulders above their northern counterparts. Of course, I'm not the world expert on Vietnamese cuisine, but I can say that the care and freedom with herbs, sauces, etc. is far better in San Jose.

Andy Nguyen Vegetarian Restaurant
2007 Broadway
Sacramento, CA

Rating: ****
Scott and I ate here not knowing that it was a vegetarian restaurant the last time I was in Sacto. This place has been here forever, at least a decade if not more. We had the Karmic Connection crepe (basically bahn xeo), Supreme Noodles soup (basically bun bo hue), the mahayana clay pot (which I really liked), and some white rice (basically white rice).

Normally, I can't stand purely vegetarian restaurants, but this one isn't at all pretentious about its dishes, except for the retarded names. We veggie bahn xeo was very good, although the crepe part could have been a bit less greasy. I REALLY liked the clay pot, which had soy fish (tiny, thin fake salmon strips that tasted pretty convincing), these odd omelette rolls with seaweed, and deep fried eggplant. This is one of the most complicated dishes I've ever had, and it was worth the wait, if you're more into technique than taste. This is definitely one of those dishes where I'm was more interested in how it was made than in the dish itself.

The veggie bun bo hue was disappointing if you've had the real thing, tasting something like a Thai lemon grass soup with a layer of chili oil. I could only have one bowl because of the chili oil. In any case, if you're going to do vegetarian, this is probably the kind of restaurant to seek out. Service is almost non-existant, although friendly when they do appear. $28.55 before tip for a large lunch for two. March 2, 2008

Banh Xeo
1111 Story Road
San Jose, CA

Rating: ***
Scott and I ate here last weekend. The banh xeo are as good as I've had anywhere, with nice sized shrimp, plenty of pork and a huge pile of greens and herbs for wrapping the crepe up with. As with most things in the food court of the giant Vietnamese mall, prices are very affordable (about $6 for a banh xeo). Scott ordered the tiny deep fried rolls whose name I don't know and will probably never learn because I don't really like them. 12/2/2006

Bamboo Cafe & Restaurant
779 Story Road (in front of Walmart)
San Jose, CA 95122

Rating: ***
My friend Piet and I were feeling adventurous, so we just started driving and decided to eat at whatever place we'd never been to before. Anyway, this is billed as a Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese restaurant, so we figured it was worth checking out.

We ordered tamarind shrimp, pad thai, and the "special" Thai chicken. The tamarind shimp can be prepared with or without shells (I choose the former) and it was quite good, although the shrimp shells were too tough to eat on some. The pad thai was serviceable and strangely lacked tamarind, which I think was because the chef was afraid we would over tamarind overload. The "special" chicken turned out to be similar to deep-fried "popsicle" chicken wings covered in sauce, but a) had been deep-fried some time ago, and b) were covered in a bland sauce. I suspect this was due to my friend being caucasian, but one can never tell.

Service was excellent (the waitress is very cute) although there were only three other people in the place. One note: this place has to have the blandest decor of any restaurant short of a Subway, but for football fans there's a huge flatscreen TV. 10/11/04

Bun Bo Hue An Nam (more properly BÚN BÒ HUÊ´ AN NAM)
740 Story Rd, Unit 3
San Jose, CA 95122
Open 6 days a week, closed Tuesdays, 9 a.m. -8 p.m.
This is a special place. First of all, they only serve one entree—a complex spicy-hot Vietnamese beef soup with sliced pork belly, tendon, a dark meat we couldn't identify, and wheat noodles, accompanied by a small bowl with shredded lemongrass, banana blossom (more on this), cabbage, and bean sprouts. They serve it two ways: regular and with buffalo penis. Actually, the waitor said "buffalo dick" and being that I'm half-deaf, I thought he actually said "buffalo mix." He quickly clarified with "penis." We ordered it without, although I was kicking myself all night for not trying it. How often to you get to order dinner "with dick, large."

They do have a number of desserts and special drinks. I had coconut milk with red beans and shaved ice because of the ongoing heatwave. Total: about $18. 10/13/04

Camrahn Bay - CLOSED
201 E. 3rd Ave.
San Mateo, CA
Their kitchen caught on fire and they aren't reopening. Too bad because this was a really lovely place for a group lunch and the owner's were very nice. 10/04

My Favorite Vietnamese Restaurant
Cao Nguyen
2549 S. King Rd. #A-16
San Jose, CA 95122

Mon-Sun 9 a.m. - 10 a.m.
Rating: ****
We stumbled on this hidden restaurant at the end of a Little Saigon stripmall by accident. The restaurant we were heading for originally was jammed with Tet celebrants. As is typical, I over-order when I don't know what I'm going to get, which was a lucky thing indeed. This is probably the best meal I've had all year and a very nice way to start the Asian new year.

We started off with a beef salad with basil and a chili peanut dipping sauce. "Salad" is a little misleading because what arrived was a plate of beef and basil on the stem. You tear off the leaves then eat them together with the beef and a little onion after dipping them in the sauce: the balance is perfect. Our order of grilled quail arrived next, which was perfectly cooked with a light glaze and melted butter. We're still trying to figure out exactly what the green, leafy herb that came with the quail was; it added a subtle undertone. We devoured these quickly. Next came the deep fried chitterlings, which were amazing. The crispy, outer layer was like Peking duck skin and the inherent fattiness of the pork intestines was cut by a sweet-and-sour sauce; it was heavenly.

What I thought was our final dish was another beef dish. The waitress brought out a pot of spicy broth, and placed it on a gas burner on our table. A plate of 1/8" thick raw sliced beef with onions came next along with vermicelli, and an enormous plate of basil, mint, lettuce cucumber slices, vinegared carrots and diakon, and bean sprouts. Using rice wrappers like tortillas (small, translucent, very sticky tortillas), you quickly cook the beef and noodles if you like in the broth, then pile on the condiments, wrap, and dip in fish sauce. Messy, but amazingly flavorful, with just a kick of chili.

While we were eating, another dish arrived which I'd forgotten about. This was julienned pork loin over tiny grains of rice (which I've never seen before) with a slice of steamed pork "pie"—I'm not sure how to describe the latter, but it's a mixture of pork, noodles, and egg covered with a thin bright yellow layer of egg yolk). A small bowl of light stock accompanied it.

The restaurant itself isn't fancy, but it's clean and lined with large windows. When we visited, most of the room was taken up by parties of 10 or more (for new years, I suppose). Service was good, and the waitor will attempt to explain how to eat some of the complex dishes (thank goodness). The whole feast including a Vietnamese iced coffee came to about $55 for two—a serious bargain. 02/01/03

Update 03/03: I liked this place so much, that we returned with more people. We had the same appetizers—grilled quail, deep-fried chitterlings—plus an addition suggested by the waitor, a Thai-style beef salad, which unfortunately caught one of my guests with a large slices of jalapeno. Spring rolls followed, then the grilled version of the mixed seafood/beef dish we had last time. This was a bit awkward to eat since the stuffings were on one side of the portable gas grill, and the meats were on the other. Still, it was delicious. I also got to try a thicker, spicier version of fish sauce, which I've been trying to locate since.

Update 05/03: I'm eating here at least three times a month now, and I keep dragging different people with me so I can try a variety of dishes. The pork and shrimp salad was perfection on a warm, spring day: halved whole shrimp, quickly boiled pork slices, pickles, and what looked and had the texture of jellyfish. Fantastic and beautifully balanced. So far, the only two dishes I didn't care for were the pineapple salad (too sweet for me) and the lemon chicken. The latter was thick with what tasted like guilan chili sauce and SALTY. The fried pompano was okay.

Update 05/04: Again we return for a nice lunch. Today was deep fried chitterlings, Cao Nyugen beef salad, and Thai-style hotpot. I've raved about the deep fried chittlerlings before, but today they came out piping hot and perfectly crisp. The beef salad, accompanied with sprigs of mint, was delicious with the dipping sauce. The Thai hotpot was the only new dish. It was chock full of whole prawns, mussels, clams, fish balls, deep fried tofu, tomatos...almost a perfect Thai balance. We ate it with steamed rice, although I wish I'd taken the waitor's suggestion of vermicelli. The place was pretty crowded. Word about the food is probably getting around.

826 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose
Phone: 408/24-2528
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon-Sat; dinner 5-9 p.m. Mon-Thu, 5-10 p.m. Fri-Sat
Rating: **

I went here because I thought it was an outpost of another Citronelle restaurant, but I was wrong on both counts. The restaurant is housed in what looks like an old steakhouse. The interior is nicely decorated and unlike most Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose doesn't have florescent lighting. The food is fancified Vietnamese, and while the food was good, the presentation was the only standout. We had a mixed appetizer which was quite good, but not noteworthy followed by filet mignon for me (super tender cubes of beef simply prepared with a light sauce, and a bowl of lime juice with pepper on the side to cut the richness) and a turmeric fish for my friend. The fish was the more interesting of the two dishes, since it was meant to be eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with mint, basil, and assorted fixings. Delicious in combination. The one addition I've never seen before were very crunchy dry rice crackers, which absorbed the juices and softened slightly (they were inedible otherwise). Dessert was a disappointing combo called Tropical Paradise, which turned out to be mango and coconut in filo pastry with two types of ice cream. Service is outstanding, attentive and friendly. Our waitress told us that they are actually a pho restaurant for lunch, but that they only have one type at dinner. We'll go back for the pho; not for dinner.

Com Tam Thanh Vietnamese Restaurant
1150 Story Road (corner of Story and McLaughlin)
San Jose, CA 95122
Rating: ***

This is one of those tiny places in Little Hanoi that serves great food, costs about $5 for dinner, and is always busy. I've tried the barbeque and the pork cake, which are served with rice topped with a sprinkling pork cracklings and a bowl of broth (I love it when they bring this, because I have no idea what it's for). The coffee isn't as good as the pho place two doors down, but it's still good. The amazing thing is that you can have a nice little meal for less than you would leave for tip at other restaurants. 03/03

Update 5/25/03: Returned with a friend during lunch rush hour, so we had to wait about 15 mins. I had the sliced BBQ pork rice plate with steamed pork cake (I loooove this stuff), seafood "mousse" bundled in a tofu sheet and deep fried, pork with shreded tripe sprinkled with that mysterious faroffa-like powder, pickled carrots, cabbage, and cucumber, and broken rice. Delicious.

Updated 2/2007: Ate here again. Still very affordable, although not as popular as before. Had the rice plate with shredded pork, pork chop, and egg cake thing. Excellent quality. I think they may have changed owners, because the menu looks different.

Dakao Sandwiches
98 E. San Salvador
San Jose, CA 95112
Open at 6 a.m.

Rating: ***

We stumbled across this unfortunately named sandwich shop by accident after being locked out of our intended restaurant by a wedding. It's located on the corner of 3rd and San Salvador and doesn't look like much from the outside. Or the inside. It's pretty dumpy. But the food is quite good. As with most sandwich shops, there's also an array of take-and-eat foods, including the spiced shredded tripe I really like. Pho is probably not on par with the dedicated pho places around San Jose, but overall the food was tasty, well-seasoned, and—as with the best Vietnamese places—the menu is has almost a hundred choices. We went for the special pho (steak, "crunchy" brisket, tripe, but no tendon) which came with slivered raw onion and a nice, fresh plate of bean sprouts and basil. My friend started with a tapioca wrapped appetizer, which is as odd as it sounds; the outside is a clear tapioca wrapper around shrimp, pork, and bits of herbs in a spicy sauce. The mouthfeel is similar to tendon. I had grilled meatballs, which came with its own plate of mint, lettuce leaves, cucumbers, rice wrappers, and a sweet/spicy peanut sauce. Excellent. Most diners opt to stand in line for the sandwiches, and there was indeed a line even on a lazy Sunday evening. 11/03

Duc Huong Cha Lua
2549 S. King Rd. #1
San Jose, CA 95122

Rating: ***
A brand new bakery in the same non-descript minimal in Little Saigon. We picked up baguettes and some ban (I think that's what the meat wrapped in leaves are called). A wide assortment of party trays (e.g., dried shrimp on tiny "plates" of mochi), and desserts. Super friendly. The woman at the counter explained that we could slice the ban and eat it as a sandwich filling using the baguette. 02/01/03

Huong Lan Sandwiches
41 Serra Way, Ste. 108
Milpitas, CA 95035
Rating: ***

A friend of mine learned about this place via a PBS documentary on great sandwiches. This is one of four Huong Lan sandwich shops, the others being in Sacramento and San Jose. The interesting thing is that sandwiches are just part of the story. Also available are two dozen or so hot dishes, a wide array of packaged pastries (Asian and European), and to-go snacks. The sandwiches themselves are nicely done: fresh French roll, a variety of meats (I choose BBQ bacon, which was basically a sort of red-cooked pork belly), and my friend chose grilled pork and sardines (separately). Vinegared carrots, onion, peppers, and herbs balanced things nicely. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that a sandwich is about $1.75. I also picked up a baguette and a large container of dried pork (yes, it looks like dryer lint, but it's my favorite sandwich filler right now). 04/13/03

Huong Tra
12221 San Pablo, Suite B
Richmond, CA 94806
Mon-Sat: 10 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Rating: ***

Just stopped in for spring (summer) rolls to eat as a quick snack before Balinese dance workshop. This is the slowest Vietnamese restaurant I've ever been in, but the rolls were good and they packed a lot of sauces with them. Out the door for around $11. 05/22/2005

Unknown Vietnamese Restaurant
Next to the Safeway in downtown San Rafael

This place only opened a few weeks ago, and it does take longer than most Vietnamese restaurants in the South Bay for your food to appear, but it did very well I thought. I ordered spring rolls (my guess is that ALL of the spring rolls in San Rafael are made by the same people because these were exactly the same as those from another restaurant), a nice serving of grilled pork on a rice plate, and some chicken dish which I've forgotten. I ordered to go since I was on my way to my boyfriend's house, but service was quite good and they packed sauces etc with the order. This is a surprisingly large restaurant, and we'll probably be back for another go especially given their hours. 05/04/2005

Lee Noodle House
2569 S. King Road #C9
San Jose CA
Open until midnight!

Rating: **

This is the other noodle house in the Tully/King neighborhood that's open until midnight. We had the house special, and it was good although a bit salty I thought. This is even less fancy than the place that faces Tully, but service was excellent. The young, cute waitor even offered to help translate the menu. 03/03

10/08/04 Update: In terms of atmosphere, this place is a dive. But the food remains pretty good. True, I think the broth at the other late-night pho place, Pho Hua, is slightly better and beefier, but there's less stuff in it—less tendon, less meat, less tripe, less basil on the side plate. My friend had the satay-flavored beef soup, which was spicy, peanuty, and very interesting...too intense for me though. The coconut drink with beans was a winner. Chokingly sweet and full of delicious coconut, palm fruit, etc etc. We got out of there for $15.

New Tung Kee Noodle House
262 E. Santa Clara St.
San Jose, CA

Rating: ***
A friend showed me this place, which sits across from the lot that will house San Jose's monstrous city hall on Santa Clara. Large for a noodle house, this place has a small but good selection of noodle dishes (note that the difference between many of the dishes is simply the type of noodle used). We had the beef stew with tendon and vermicelli noodles, which despite the chili pepper icon next to the name is mildly spicy with plenty of stewed beef and tender tendon. The pad thai can be skipped; focus on the noodle soups. Big selection of drinks, including pearl teas and longan. Six locations in the south bay and east bay. Cash only. 11

Nha Hang Saigon Seafood Vien Dong
740 Story Rd. #1
San Jose, CA 95122
Open 7 days a week, 9 a.m.–10 p.m.
Rating: ***

We stopped here by accident because it was the only place open so late. The service is super friendly, and fast. The food was good, with nice renditions of spring rolls, bun, and chicken soup. The BBQ was very good, juicy and with a nice carmelized crust. Dinner was about $14. 03/02

Pho Bang
Tully & King
San Jose, CA
Rating: ***

I think this place was once a Pizza Hut, but it has the best location—right at the corner of the busiest intersection in Little Hanoi. We went at around 9:30 p.m. right before they were closing (why is it that I always feel like noodles late?) but still had a nice meal. I had the house special, which was nicely flavored and had a good selection of meats. My friend had a bowl of chicken soup, which he immediately doused with chili sauce, so I didn't taste it. They also sell these delicious butter cookies with a raisin pressed in the middle. 02/03

Pho Ga An Nam
740 Story Road, Unit 8
San Jose, CA 95122

Rating: **
Went with Scott for a late night snack. I had a regular bowl of what was basically chicken soup and Scott had one with garlic. Get the one with garlic. The taste is a bit subtle, although I was fully expecting the chicken version of beef pho. We will return to see what other goodies they have. NOTE: This is owned by the same folks that own the BÚN BÒ HUÊ´ AN NAM in the same minimall. 11/04

Pho Hoa
1834 Tully Rd.
San Jose, CA (Lion Shopping Center)

Open until midnight!
Rating: ****
One of the two restaurants in the Tully/King area that are open until midnight (we've been here three times at around 11 p.m.). The house special phô is good with steak, brisket, tendon, and shredded tripe, but both of the late-night pho joints suffer from a saltier than usual stock. Service is very good, and there's a wide variety of pearl teas and other sweet drinks. This is the San Jose outpost of a pho restaurant chain. 03/03

Pho Little Saigon
2978 S. Norfolk St. (in the Marina Grocery Shopping Center)
San Mateo, CA 94403

Rating: ***
Went with my boss because he was bored with Chinese food. I had the special pho, which had a nice selection of meats. They slice their tendon in nice pieces, which is always welcome. The soup was okay, maybe a little more oily than other places. I still think the soup at Viet Hung is the best (although inconsistent). 11/03

Pho Tao Bay Noodle House
454 Keyes St.
San Jose, CA 95051
Mon-Sun, 8 a.m.-Midnight
Rating: ***

Finally, a pho place in my neighborhood (right down the street, in fact). We went on opening night, so they were still working out some of the kinks in how they took orders, but the food was just fine. I had the #1 combo, and it was quite tasty. Frankly, I find it almost impossible to detect the subtleties in pho when there aren't two bowls of it sitting side-by-side; it's either good or bad. This was good. What's very unusual about the menu is the number of grilled steaks they have (with macaroni as one of the side dishes!). I'm really happy to see that Vietnamese restaurants are spending the money on decor; this place (with some toning down of the overhead lighting) could be really quite nice. I'll be going here a lot, so look for updates soon. 12/05

I tried the seafood soup here last week and it was glorious, although with one odd side effect. The broth is tasty and the seafood is first rate (two crab claws, good-sized shrimp, a few pieces of pork, etc.). The only weird thing is that about 20 mins later I felt like I had an MSG overdose. It could be naturally occuring since the stock is no doubt reduced quite a bit, but be warned. June, 2007

Pho Thanh Long Restaurant
2450 El Camino Real (corner of San Tomas Expressway)
Santa Clara, CA 95051
7 days a week, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Rating: ***

Finally, a pho place near my house! I go here after work when it's too hot to cook or when I'm lazy. Pho is good, with the standard accompaniments of raw steak, tripe, tendon. I went with a friend who ordered the hen soup, which was also fine. Chicken chow mein was also fine, and less greasy than most Chinese restaurants. 06/03

Nhà Hàng Saigon Seafood Restaurant (Vien Dông)
740 Story Road #1
San Jose, CA 95122
9 a.m.-10 p.m everyday
Rating: ***

We chanced on this place when trying to find something open and we were pleasantly surprised. The barbeque was quite good, as were the spring rolls. My friend chose noodles, although I'm never sure what he thinks of his food since a) he takes forever to eat, and b) he immediately mixes in a huge spoonful of chili sauce without tasting it first. Service was excellent and fast, and they stayed open a bit longer to accommodate us. I'll be going back to try more dishes soon. 02/03

Nha Toi restaurant (formerly Thu Do)
460 E. Williams St.
San Jose, CA 95112
Mon-Sat: hours change according to what's posted on the door, order French food by 9 p.m.
Rating: **
San Jose is starting to spin so fast, I'm not sure I want to get off. This placed changed hands apparently and has rebranded itself as French/Vietnamese with a retired Cordon Bleu licensed chef before 9 p.m. The menu is still pretty much Vietnamese, but with some interesting and reasonably priced French dishes. My friend Cevin and I actually showed up late on a Thursday, so we could only order Vietnamese food. It was good, not spectacular, but they did just open a few weeks ago. The hostess is amazing, and I expect great things from this place. Don't bother with the eggrolls, however. No rice wrappers. The presentation, however, is among the most sophisticated I've seen. I had absolutely no idea what to do with all of the sauces, bowls, and condiments presented. 01/26/2006

Saigon City
418 Third Ave.
San Mateo, CA 94401

Rating: **
This place is almost always packed at lunch, probably because it's inexpensive and serves okay food. The pho isn't as rich as at Viet Hung, and I prefer my tendon in larger pieces rather than sliced as they serve it here. Everything else I've tried here has just been okay. Admittedly, the menu is HUGE, and I'm sure offering all of that variety means less focus on any particular dish. The ambience is basic: formica tables, bad lighting, a mirrored wall. Service is acceptable. 12/02

Saigon 75 - NEW!
304A East Santa Clara St. (one block east from San Jose City Hall)
San Jose, CA 95113

Rating: ****
An accidental find, but I love this restaurant. Basically, this restaurant takes the same approach as some San Francisco restaurants like Maverick: they take standard "homey" dishes and increases the size and quality to the point where they'll satisfy most appetites. The stand out is the banh tom, which is tempura-style sweet potato sticks mixed with unshelled shrimp with lettuce wrappers. I LOVE this dish. We also had com luc lac (shaken beef), chicken satay, and a coconut juice. They change the free tea that's served from day to day, and on this night it was a lovely, honey-scented variety I couldn't identify. Some people complain about the prices, but when they see the serving and quality, they change their minds. Dinner for two before tip: $31.95. NOTE: We've been back here four times since then and the quality is really consistent. One note is that if you go late, they tend to run out of dessert. Oct 12, 2007

Update Oct 24, 2007: This is now our default restaurant when we don't feel like risking a drive to Tully and Cao Nguyen restaurant (although that is still my favorite in San Jose). We had suon tom ran (pork ribs with shrimp in a carmelized sauce - I'd skip this one), banh tom (tempura yam with shrimp - we get this EVERY time), raumuon xao (waterspinach with garlic), banh hoi, rice, and hot tea. They refuse to tell me what the tea is here, although it's fantastic. They said is was "jasmine" but it's not; it's this amazing anise flavor that gradually becomes honeyed and sweet. Huge dinner for three was $49.63 before tax.

Update Feb 13, 2008: We had banh tom (of course), shaking beef appetizer (my boyfriend's favorite), grilled aubergine stuffed with crab (fantastic), and lemon grass tofu (also very good). They still won't tell me what the tea is. We only made it through two dishes and took the rest home. It could easily have fed six. $52.93

Saigon Cuisine - NEW!
1150 El Camino Real (in the Tanferan Shopping Mall, near the food court)
San Bruno, CA 94066

Rating: ***
This mall restauarant has surprisingly good food. We had the house special pho, the rare beef pho tai, shrimp and crab cha gio (spring rolls), and mango pearl teas. Service is good if a bit nervous. The restaurant itself isn't fabulous, but it's clean and they have some art on the walls. Before tip $25.11.

Saigon Kitchen - NEW!
1111 Story Rd., Ste 1005
San Jose, CA 95122

Rating: ****
This is the latest restaurant to occupy this space in the huge Vietnamese mall at Story and McLaughlin. It's an expansive space, and decorated on a budget (nicely). We had the goi ca dac biet saigon, a fabulous raw fish salad which I highly recommend, the bo luc lac (shaken beef) which was perfectly cooked, com chien cua (crab fried rice with chunks of crab), and hot tea (which we were inexplicably charged for unlike almost any other restaurant). I really loved this lunch, and it would have easily fed four if everyone liked crab. Before tip: $35.56 January 12, 2008

Update August 16, 2008: We eat here whenever we go to the Vietnamese mall, which is to say every other week. We had...

  • two chim cut quay (roasted quail, good but I like Cao Nguyen's version best)
  • banh khot (those tiny, sopa-like shrimp pies)
  • mi xao toi (noodles, I think)
  • goi tom (grilled shrimp salad)
  • da chanh (lemonade)
  • chanh muoi (salty lemon soda)

Before tip, the total was $38.27, which is pretty amazing given the amount of food.

Saigon Village Restaurant
720 B. St.
San Rafael, CA 94901

Open daily 10 a.m.- 9 p.m. everyday
Rating: **
Next to the big Safeway, this is a largish (by San Mateo standards) restaurant that's clean but not particularly nice. The food is below San Jose Vietnamese standards but it's not like there's a lot of alternatives. I used to stop by here to pick something up for dinner all the time when Scott was still living in San Jose and the food is consistent if not amazing. 8/2005

2543 Noriega St. (near 33rd)
San Francisco, CA 94122
Hours: Thu-Tue 11-3, 5-10; Closed Wednesday
We chanced on this place in the Vietnamese/Chinese neighborhood. I also recommend the noodle house down the street, but by all means avoid the Japanese restaurant (mediocre, lame service, and expensive). The dim sum joint across the street has some weird dishes. Anyway, all of the dishes were perfectly cooked and they went out of their way to ensure we had a nice dinner even though we showed up pretty late. I recommend this place. 01/26/2006

Beef seven ways (Bo bay mon)

Update March 4, 2006: We return because I have a bit of a pho craving. Unfortunately, pho is not really the dish to order here, which is understandable. We also had a very nice beef salad, which I can recommend. As always, service is quite good, although it can take a few hand waves when you want to leave. Do it the Vietnamese/French way and walk up to the register if you can't wait.

Update May 14, 2006: We return to try the seven courses of beef dinner, which I'd only heard about from my friend Greg. I went with my friend Scott. Here's how it went...

Course 1: Vinegar-cooked beef
This was a nice preparation of a fairly common dish, which is a bit like shabu shabu except a) they use vinegar and herbs instead of water, and b) you roll the beef up in rice sheets with tons of herbs and other goodies to make a small spring roll of sorts. The selection of vegetables and herbs they provided was very nice with a better assortment than other restaurants I've tried this dish at.

Course 2: Beef Salad
A fairly standard grilled beef salad, although the beef was nicely charbroiled.

Course 3: Grape Leaf Beef
Ground beef (just cooked until pink) wrapped in charred grape leaves. I know that sounds bad, but it was absolutely the standout dish of the evening. Just incredibly delicious and my new favorite at this restaurant.

Course 4: Asparagus and leek wrapped in beef
This was also a nice dish which we've already had at this restauarant. The beef wasn't overcooked at all, but for some reason the asparagus was blazing hot. Don't chow down on these based on the temperature of the meat.

Course 5: Glazed Beef
Sort of a teriyaki style, but not as sweet. Nice chunks of grainy meat charbroiled very nicely and served on an attractive plate of sliced tomatoes.

I should note here that by course 4 (maybe even course 2) I was stuffed. We began eating less and less of the accompanying salads and fixings that accompanied the meat.

Course 6: Jook with shredded beef
Okay, so they finish off with something that will definitely fill you up if you weren't already. This was delicious though, so I ate at least half of it, and usually I hate jook or congee or chagai or any other rice porridge since that's what my mom made me eat when I was sick as a child.

Total bill was an amazingly low $43. I tipped very well, since we had such an excellent evening.

Update Feb 18, 2008: We returned for dinner. We had asparagus beef (beef rolled around asparagus spears), fried pork salad (I really liked this), and seaweed soup. This place is utterly consistent, although on weeknights you may have to wait a bit before you food arrives; when it does, you'll be happy. Dinner before tip was $37.81.

Update Nov 26, 2008: We return for lunch. We had the raw beef salad, which I'll have to say is very nicely done here (not too much lime), asparagus wrapped in grilled beef, another dish I'm forgetting, and a grilled pork lunch special. Drinks rounded things out to $50.63 before tip.

Viet Hung
2456 El Camino Real
San Mateo, CA

Rating: ***
A recent find by my boss with excellent pho, the beef noodle soup. I highly recommend the combination version with rare beef, tripe (sliced thin so it isn't hard to chew), and tendon. Served with a plate of bean sprouts, jalepenos, lime, and basil to add as you like. It is fantastically delicious, and MSG-free from what I can tell. 02/02

NOTE FROM WES: Viet Hung is by far the most inconsistent restaurant I've eaten at. Ever. When they're on, they're on. When they're off, they're waaaaaay off. See below.

Visitor update 12/17/02: I think generally your recommendations are excellent, but I went to Viet Hung last week and it was lousy, the waitress was incompetent, she didn't have a clue about what items are on the menu and gave incorrect information about the dishes we ordered. Then the lemongrass chicken was served almost cold and the pho tasted ok, but smelled musty like it had been made with dirty dish clothes. I have eaten a lot of Vietnamese food and this was pretty ordinary. - Filippa

Wes concurs: True, the pho at Viet Hung has lost something; it's neither as rich or interesting as it was a year ago. Still, it's better than at Little Hanoi on 3rd. Since pho is all we ever order, I can't vouch for the other menu items. I should also mention that this is not a fancy place—old paneling and bad lighting.

03/03 Update: I've been eating here once a week for the past month, and the pho has come back to where it was when I first tried this place—rich, not salty, and with a nice complexity. This is still the best pho I've had, although my experience is limited. The amount of meats in a large bowl is substantial compared with other restaurants, and it's service quickly enough so that the steak slices are still medium rare when they hit the table. I wonder if it has to do with when I go—around 2 p.m.—since I usually only choose pho when I'm in a big rush. True, the service is still weird, but I think this must be some sort of Vietnamese tradition, like having to go up to the counter when you want to pay.

Vung Tau
535 East Santa Clara St.
San Jose, CA 95112
Rating: ****

Many of you are probably wondering how I could leave this restaurant off the list. I blame it on age. I've actually been here several times, and while the food is slightly altered for the audience (example: the shredded pork is mostly pork meat vs. pork meat and tripe(?)). In any case, this place is excellent 70% of the time and good the other 30%.

We had two rice plates. Mine was grilled pork, shredded pork, and egg cake. The egg cake was nicely done although lacking the strong egg flavor I've had at other restaurants. The grilled pork was good, but a bit overdone. We also had the eggrolls, which are done in a rice wrapper instead of flour, so they're incredible crispy (the best in town, I'd say) and tamarind freshwater shrimp, which were huge and quite good. I can also recommend the grilled quail, which were stuffed, and the grilled beef dishes. The Vietnamese equivalent of three-cup chicken (in this case pork) was disappointing, with none of the caramel-y flavors.

Service was excellent as always. This place has gone through the most amazing transformation from a renovated diner to a first-class restaurant. Prices have increased accordingly, but for those looking to explore Vietnamese food, this is probably the place to start. Six-dish lunch for four with drinks: $82. Huge dinner for two, no drinks: $60. 7/28/2005



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