Pdho and I had a craving for Vietnamese food, as we sometimes do, and decided to head to Downtown San Jose to go have dinner at Vung Tau. Not having grown up in the Bay Area, I’m not as familiar with its legacy but after being introduced to it a couple of years ago, I would say it’s one of the better, more authentic Vietnamese restaurants that I’ve been to. I guess back in the day it was a less fancy, but with much success through the years, it has really turned into a nicer end dining destination. Vung Tau is the flagship restaurant that has spawned other locations in South Bay including Tamarine in Palo Alto, the more Western-influenced Vietnamese member of the bunch.
Yelpers seem to rave about an appetizer dish called Banh Khot. I think I’ve had this maybe 1 or 2 times before, but I don’t really remember or know it too well. Basically, it’s a rice tapioca cake that is deep fried on the outside and filled with a shrimp and green onion mixture in the middle. There is a distinct coconut taste to the cake which I think it how it is supposed to be, but seeing as that I’m not a big fan of coconut-flavored foods, I kind of didn’t like it…. but then aside from that, I actually did like it. It was funny, because I would eat one up … and as I would be chewing, I would think “hhmm… I don’t like that coconut flavor”, but then I would take another one off the plate. The fish sauce was pretty pungent, but it added the right amount of flavor to the cakes. It was the crispy crunch of the outer crust that kept luring me back in spite of the coconut taste of the cakes.
The soup was Canh Chua Ca Bong Lau which was a tamarind-based soup with catfish, tomatoes, celery, bean sprouts, & rice paddy herbs. The taste was sour but simultaneously sweet in a way that I wasn’t sure if I liked or not. I think I’m not used to the sweetness, but after dousing the rice in the broth, I enjoyed a soupy bowl of rice. The catfish was very fatty and tasted really good after it was dipped in some fish sauce.
This has always been one of my favorite dishes in spite of how extremely fatty it always is. It is pork shoulder and eggs stewed in a slightly sweetened fish sauce. This is more in line with how I had it as a kid, but the more common preparations in Vietnamese restaurants seem to have more of a caramelized sauce. Either way, they are both good. The pork is so tender, and one of the best parts is eating the skin. It takes a lot of effort, but when I eat the skin (and the pork for that matter), I scrape off the fat lining as much as I can to minimize my fat intake. Pdho laughs at me and tells me I’m missing the best part, but when you’ve been doing this since you were a kid, you become trained to not like the fat taste.
This was probably the best dish of the night although the competition was admittedly very tough. I just really like squid when it is well-prepared, and this was very well-done. Muc Rang Muoi is squid breaded with rice flour and wok-tossed with garlic, salt and onions. The squid pieces were a decent size and tenderly cooked. The batter was a just a tad bit thick, but totally forgivable because the seasoning was so tasty.
Overall, the food is very good. I’ve been a couple of times before and I’ve never been disappointed. Some of the dishes are cooked a little differently than I’m used to, but for the most part, the food is well-done and tastes really good. The menu is quite extensive, but they offer a variety of dishes including different rice plates, noodle dishes and other entrees to eat family-style. The restaurant is definitely nicer than your typical Vietnamese pho place, but with all the success they have had through the years, they eventually renovated and went a little more upscale. So the place is nicer and cleaner and this eventually translated into price increases on the menu, but I guess considering how tough it is to find good Vietnamese food in the Bay Area, I won’t be complaining too loudly.
535 East Santa Clara Street
San Jose, CA 95112
PAFO Ratings for Vung Tau:
Price 3 ½ stars
Ambiance 3 stars
Food 4 stars
Overall rating 3 ½ stars