Nam Phuong

I may have mentioned once or twice that my husband and I love Vietnamese food. Well, maybe I’ve mentioned it before. It’s like my love for all things Italian–it comes up often. We usually frequent Vietnam Restaurant (either the Chinatown or the West Philly location) but sometimes when we’re in the mood for a lightening quick and inexpensive meal, we go to Nam Phuong at 11th and Washington in the Wing Phat Plaza.  Parking in Wing Phat Plaza deserves a post of its own, but let’s just say it’s always interesting trying to score a spot in the parking lot packed with folks lurking for a spot to park their minivans. There are lots of minivans in Wing Phat Plaza.

The main dining room is huge and almost always packed with a primarily Asian clientele. Last weekend, there were remnants of Chinese New Year littered throughout the parking lot and leftover decorations inside the restaurant itself. We were quickly ushered to a table, as usual, and our water and tea appeared before we could even remove our coats.  We’re so familiar with the menu that we generally know what we want to order, so a quick perusal always does the trick. This time, we went with the vegetarian summer rolls ($2.95) and each got a bowl of pho. My husband doesn’t mess around. He got #152 Deluxe Pho with Eye-Round Steak, Well Done Flank, Fat Brisket, Soft Tendon, Beef Tripe, Beep Balls ($6.25.) Good boy. I’m a little safer with my meats and stuck with #162 Pho with Slices of Eye-Round Steak ($5.75.)

The summer rolls came quickly with the standard peanut sauce. I always take little tastes of the peanut sauce alone because it’s just so darn tasty. There’s nothing especially noteworthy about the rolls but, in a way, that’s why I like them so much. I always know what to expect and there’s something kind of cool about an appetizer that feeds 2 for under three bucks.  They may not be as pretty as the ones at Vietnam or Le Viet, but let me tell ya, they certainly do the trick.

Before we could even finish the rolls, our bowls of steaming hot pho were placed on the table. Before your pho is served, they give you your plate of “fixins” as I like to call them. The fixins contain basil, bean sprouts, jalapenos and lime and are mixed into your pho according to your tastes. I like a lot of lime and jalapeno, while the husband steers clear of the spicy.

Check out this big ole bowl of noodle soup. The meat is dropped into the soup immediately before it’s brought to the table, so it finishes cooking in front of you.

This broth was so rich and full that I could have poured it into a cup and drank it plain. Instead, I fully embarrassed myself, as per usual in authentic Asian establishments, with my poor yet earnest attempt at chopsticks. Folks have tried to teach me for years but I’m a lefty and I hold a pen funny so chopsticks are kind of a lost cause. That doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort though! Each bite contained a big scoop of noodles (or whatever size I was able to capture with the chopsticks) along with the crunchy bean sprouts and maybe a hunk of meat if I was lucky. It was divine and I almost forgot how much I probably stuck out as I happily sloshed around in my bowl o’noodles. We left that day with warm bellies and perhaps a few broth stains on our shirts (I wear a lot of black for a reason, folks.) The best part about it? The entire meal was under $20 including tip. If you are so inclined at dinner, you can even get an inexpensive glass of wine or other spirits and you will certainly not break the bank. Just be careful when you’re leaving the parking lot.

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Le Viet

Ever since Le Viet opened in a flashy building on 11th Street, just north of Washington, a few months back, my husband and I had been wanting to check it out. Have I mentioned that we love Vietnamese food?? It seemed to have Vietnam potential a little closer to our neck of the woods–solid Vietnamese food and yummy cocktails. OK, I didn’t really know what kind of cocktails they had but drive by and look at the sign; it will make you think they have yummy cocktails, I promise. Somehow we never got the chance as our go-to Vietnamese spots are, as you know, Vietnam and Vietnam West. When we get into the Mex-Asian area of Philadelphia (11th & Washington-ish) we tend to frequent Nam Phuong for good, cheap pho and a lightning quick meal. Actually, we were recently at Nam Phuong for lunch and I saw a number of flyers on the cars parked in the Asian Supermarket that shares a space with Nam Phuong. Much of the flyer was in Vietnamese,  but I got the gist that they were explaining that their prices were just as reasonable, if not more so, than the other local restaurants. But I digress. A few weeks ago we were in the mood to eat out on a chilly Saturday night and thought we’d check out Le Viet for the first time.

We drove a few blocks (it was cold!!) north to Washington Avenue and searched for a spot for a few minutes before settling on a strange side street on which we had to park with two wheels on the curb. Oh, we’re from South Philly so this parking spot was our cup of tea! We walked into Le Viet and were greeted immediately by a friendly staff member who ushered us back to a table. I chose the seat facing the open kitchen, of course, but my husband is accustomed to that. As we perused the menus, glancing over at the gorgeous wood bar and large plasma televisions, my husband noted that they must not have their liquor license as the bar was devoid of alcohol. That was strange. I guess we missed the memo that the liquor license was still in limbo. Oh well, an alcohol-free dinner isn’t the worst thing in the world.

The menu had many traditional (and familiar) Vietnamese items, although the appetizer list was a little more adventurous. We went safe with our entrees–house special pho for the husband and vermicelli with shrimp balls for me. I was proud of myself for veering away from my typical protein selection of chicken, beef or calamari. For appetizers, we went with our favorite summer rolls stuffed with shrimp and pork (we usually opt for the veggie version) and the wings. Oh man, the wings aren’t listed on their website’s menu but they had a funny name like “Uncle Charlie’s Wings” or something. Don’t quote me on that though…

After a brief wait, the summer rolls (gui cuon) arrived.

While they were not dissimilar to other summer rolls I’ve had, it did not keep me from enjoying them immensely.  There’s nothing like the fresh flavors contained in a simple rice wrapper. The secret to summer rolls? The sauce. I actually had to guard the leftover sauce from more than one overzealous waiter once the rolls were devoured.

Soon thereafter the wings arrived. Something we noticed throughout our meal was the neat dishes and attention to plating in the kitchen. Also, cutely enough, the wings came with much-needed wet-naps!!

I’m a bit delayed on blogging so I’m having difficulty with taste recall but they were sweet and not spicy with a gingery Asian flair. These wings were really, REALLY good! I also enjoyed the bed of arugula soaked with excess wing sauce. Made me feel like I was eating healthy!

After a slightly longer than preferred wait (ok, it probably would have been better if we had drinks!) our entrees arrived. My husband’s steaming hot bowl of pho was just was he was hoping for.

My vermicelli, on the other hand, totally threw me for a loop. They set it at the table and asked if I wanted it with rice paper wrappers. You saw what I wrote about them earlier, so I enthusiastically said “Yes!”

Look at the shrimp balls! And yes, the word ball is a little misleading. So they placed the wrappers down next to my plate and asked if I wanted a tutorial. Who me? The old Vietnamese food pro? Nah!! The wrappers, for those of you who don’t know, must be dipped briefly into a bowl of steaming hot water to sufficiently soften them for your wrapping pleasure. After a few successful rolls, a waiter swooped onto my table and told me that he just had to give me a lesson because I was dipping my wrapper for too long. Who knew. A bruised ego and a few notches humbler, I perfected the dip and finished up my little rolls. While they were quite tasty (and I especially enjoyed the “fixins” that went with them) I did yearn for my typical Vietnam vermicelli bowl. It’s ok though–I had something a little different and enjoyed it!

We passed on dessert and got the check. Apparently dining without alcohol has its perks–our meal was in the $20 range for two appetizers and two entrees! I guess those Vietnamese language flyers were telling the truth! Ironically, Craig LaBan’s two-bell review of Le Viet came out the same weekend.  I guess the husband and I are just in the know!

Vietnamese Noodle Salad a.k.a. Adventures with my Mandoline

Fridays are usually take-out nights in the Row Home Eats household. After a long week, there’s nothing like curling up to a movie and a Los Jalapenos steak, pepper and onion burrito (hold the rice, add guacamole, please.) We don’t have to worry about cooking and our weekly food supply has diminished just in time for our Saturday shopping expeditions at the Reading Terminal. This Friday, however, we had some extra marinated flank steak calling our name. My butcher, Harry Ochs, has an amazing soy-ginger marinade that they use on flank steak and chicken breast. It’s normally available pre-packaged but, if not, they’re always happy to marinate your choice of meat to order. Flank steak is a difficult topic for us because I enjoy my meat a little more well done, while my carnivorous husband, Mr. Row Home Eats, likes it rare. We recently discovered a happy medium–we cut the steak into skewers and the pieces can be cooked to order. Happiness all around.

As I was contemplating the sides to go with our marinated steak skewers, my husband suggested an Asian noodle salad. The evening took off from there. Have I mentioned that Vietnam is my favorite restaurant? Have I devoted extensive posts to my adoration for Vietnamese food? Why is it, then, that I have never attempted to make it at home? That was it. I was sold on making a Vietnamese noodle salad topped with grilled steak similar to my favorite vermicelli bowl at Vietnam.

I did a little googling and came across this recipe. I didn’t realize it was Bobby Flay until just now so you can stop making fun of me. I did, of course, make major alterations to the recipe based on available ingredients and taste preference. My amalgamated recipe follows.

Bobby Flay’s Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad, adapted

  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped (omitted–Mr. RHE doesn’t like spicy)
  • 1 tablespoon honey (used more like 2-3 tbsp)
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce (didn’t have. Used 3 tbsp soy sauce instead)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt(omitted)
  • 1 pound dried rice vermicelli
  • 2 carrots, julienned
  • cucumber, halved, peeled, seeded and sliced into thin halfrounds
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint (omitted, didn’t have.)
  • 1/2 cup finely shredded napa cabbage (probably used closer to 1-2 cups. What can I say, I like cabbage)
  • 1/4 cup chopped dryroasted nuts

I started by slicing and skewering the flank steak to prepare it for the grill.

While we waited for the grill to pre-heat, I pulled out my mandoline and began wreaking havoc on my kitchen. I was inspired to use my mandoline after my recent post on kitchen tools. My friend, Alexa, commented that she loved her mandoline and I realized that I’ve only used it once, rather unsuccessfully, since we received it as a wedding gift. Another friend, Brad, shared his unfortunate mandoline experience (unfortunate for his finger, that is) and I was intrigued. Perhaps I should give my mandoline another shot, I thought.

Last time I used the mandoline, I was less than successful. It was difficult to get the hang of it and I couldn’t get a clean “sweep” back and forth. This time I started with the easy English cucumber. The mandoline glided back and forth effortlessly–I was back in business! Then I moved on the the cabbage. I was excited to try the julienne blade as I had only ever used the straight slicer. It wasn’t entirely unsuccessful.

Most of it got into the bowl I placed beneath…it went a little more downhill when I switched to carrots. In the end, I got a nice amount of sliced and julienned vegetables. I think they look rather pretty!

My mandoline was a little worse for the wear. Does anyone have tips as to how to remove carrot stains?

As I finished playing with my mandoline, the water started boiling for the rice noodles. As I was just about to toss them in, my husband came in and informed me that we were out of propane halfway through the cooking process. Chalk that up to another typical cooking experience. Sigh. Under the broiler they went and I began prepping the sauce.

I combined the soy sauce, lime juice, honey, cilantro and garlic in my mini-Cuisinart. See, I TOLD you I use that thing a ton! I was wondering why Bobby didn’t use any rice vinegar in his recipe so I tossed a bit in the mixture. After I whirred the thing a bit, I deemed the mixture a bit thin and decided to add some peanuts. Where did I get said peanuts? Well, for those of you who might have thought that I was some fancy foodie, think again. I picked the peanuts out of a bag of trail mix that was sitting in my fridge. Yes I did. Nothing is beneath me, my friends. Here’s the Cuisinart in action.

After the sauce was made, I brought the water back to a boil and tossed in the rice noodles. Instructions said to boil for 2 minutes but they weren’t quite ready and I added another minute or two. Then I drained them and covered in cold water, rinsing them well. The rice noodle give off  a lot of gumminess so the rinsing is key. Also, this is a cold noodle salad and we want to keep it that way. Here’s a boring white on white picture (with a shadow) to show you what it looks like at this point.

I pulled the flank steak out of the broiler and it looked darn good. We don’t need no stinkin’ grill!

While the steak was cooling a bit, I tossed the noodles and vegetable slaw with the dressing. I didn’t think the dressing would be sufficient (it was only about a cup) but it soaked into the noodles nicely.  I also threw in some more ground peanuts, sliced green onion and some extra cilantro on top.

I mixed it all up and put the remaining cucumbers on top.

Then we dug in! I prepared myself a bowl with a couple slices of flank steak and, if I can say so myself, the dish looked eerily similar to my favorite place!

I topped mine with some sriracha because I like the heat! Then we settled down to an evening of Mad Men on DVD. The noodle salad was a hit! It had a very strong lime/acidic flavor, probably due to the extra rice wine vinegar I added. The vegetables and chopped peanuts added a welcome crunch to the chewiness of the noodles and the steak was, not surprisingly, a perfectly charred, meaty addition to the bowl. A word to the wise–this dish does not keep well at all. The noodles harden up a bit and the flavor subsides substantially. If you’re going to make it, be sure you eat it all the same day. It’s so darn good that it shouldn’t be too difficult.