When you think of Vietnamese food, what do you think of? Pho , right? What else do you think of? Spring rolls? The more informed foodies may know of rice noodles and broken rice. And then what? There’s a whole other world when it comes to Vietnamese food. I am referring to Northern Vietnamese food. You may be saying northern??? What’s the difference. From my perspective, being from a northern Vietnamese family, I’d say a northern Vietnamese cuisine is generally more bland. A whole lot less sugar and heat. And you’re probably saying to yourself, “wow northern Vietnamese doesn’t sound so good.” And I don’t expect you to really. It’s just a taste I grew up on, so I can’t stand going to your average Vietnamese restaurant and being overwhelmed with sugar, sugar, sugar. My mom never used sugar in her cooking, so it’s not something I’m used to. So aside from the lighter hand with sugar, northern Vietnamese food is marked by noodle soups that are NOT pho, including bun thanh, bun rieu, bun bung, bun vit sao mang, etc etc.
My family’s go-to Vietnamese restaurant for foods that hail from our part of the country is Vien Dong. We’ve been going to this place since before its relocation to Brookhurst, when it was originally on Westminster and owned by a previous mayor of Westminster. Although Vien Dong serves northern cuisine, I’d still say there’s plenty of sugar in the food and maybe they are just catering to the many southern Vietnamese people or maybe I just come from a crazy anti sugar Vietnamese family.
This is a common theme among restaurants in Westminster. In this economy, businesses are hurting. The restaurant industry is no exception.
Bun Cha was one of my favorite foods when we went out to eat. It’s very simple and therefore very kid friendly. It consists of grilled pork sitting in a dressed up sweet/tangy fish sauce with little pickled daikons and carrots.
It is served with rice noodles and a medley of fresh lettuce and aromatics including cilantro, mint, and other things which I don’t know the English names for. I suppose this is not necessarily a northern Vietnamese specialty, but its done very well here. One downside to this dish at other places is that the pork can be very fatty, so beware!
Northern Vietnamese food is also known for the large of variety of noodle soups. My mom makes better versions at home that taste cleaner, but they do a great job here. My grandma’s caretaker makes a great version of Bun Rieu, which is a tomato and crab based soup. It can be very labor intensive to make from scratch using whole fresh crabs, but you can cheat and buy pre-mixed seasonings from a jar, add some eggs, some canned crab meat, and voile!
I always get cha ca thang long from here. It is catfish marinated in tumeric and served on a sizzling hot plate with dill, white and green onions and hot oil. The trick is to take all the aromatics and bury them under the fish so they cook and add flavor.
It is served with the aromatics, lettuce, rice noodles and then a special fermented shrimp paste sauce, called mam tom. It’s frankly pungent and a lot of people cannot tolerate such funkiness. But the funkiness is tempered by the addition of sugar and lime juice. You could also eat this with fish dipping sauce. The dish also comes with roasted peanuts and crispy sesame rice crackers. Mixed all together it creates a wonderfully delicious and balanced dish, the savory fresh grilled fish, the herby aromatics, the salty/sweet/tangy sauce, the nutty peanuts, and the light crunchy toasted rice crackers. I believe in Hanoi it is served a bit differently in a sizzling bowl of oil and aromatics, but the idea is all the same.
If you’re tired of the same ole things when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, you should definitely come here and familiarize yourself with Vietnamese noodle soups that aren’t pho. This place is a family favorite, and the H.o.P. is picky when it comes to Vietnamese food in Westminster.