Sometimes I get a little frustrated trying to explain the regional nuances of Vietnamese cuisine. Most people know, or at least have heard of, the differences between North and South, or if they know of Central cuisine, they usually think of Hue. So it seems like I'm always asserting the South-Central Coastal differences.
Hey, we're a different breed you know! Honestly, we all have our biases of how we think food should be, mostly based upon how it was prepared in our homes. And while I don't think anything will ever taste as good as my momma's home cooking, it's nice to stumble upon a restaurant where a lot of my regional foods can be found. Where I don't have to explain that Central-style banh xeo (Vietnamese sizzling crepe) is different -- smaller, no coconut milk, no turmeric. Where they make the pulverized shrimp on top of banh beo (Vietnamese steamed rice discs with shrimp) exactly like how my family makes it -- not quite fresh, but not super dry.
About six months ago, while grabbing a chocolate croissant at Mr. Baguette, I noticed that the Banh Cuon So 1 & BBQ across the street was going out of business. In its place was a Central Vietnamese restaurant, the literal translation of Quan Mien Trung. Yippee!
So when my childhood friend had a craving for Bun Bo Hue (Vietnamese Hue-Style Beef Noodle Soup), we decided to check it out. Turns out, the owners are from Qui Nhon, just an hour north of our hometown. That's pretty much the same thing, said our waiter, and indeed we had a lively discussion of our regional foods.
The $6 bowl was listed as bun bo dac biet mien Trung (Vietnamese Central-style special beef noodle). Hmm. So it's not bun bo Hue?
Well, it wasn't as red and lacked the lemongrass flavor, but it had the right noodles, blood cubes, pig's feet, and beef shank. The broth was beefy and flavorful. My friend said she remembered ordering bun bo in our hometown and it was exactly like this after all.
Our plate of herbs even included thinly sliced banana blossoms, which is always a nice touch, along with tia to (Vietnamese perilla), mint, bean sprouts, and cabbage.
The $6 banh beo were heartier than any version I've had anywhere else, but they were freshly steamed and soft.
The dried shrimp was like how my family makes it, not fresh like Quan Hy Vietnamese Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon), but not burnt like Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant - Rosemead and Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant - Alhambra.
The $6 banh canh tom cua (Vietnamese udon noodles with shrimp and crab) were just OK.
I admit I'm spoiled. My mom makes her own noodles and uses lots of lump crab meat. These noodles were the short Chinese needle noodles and tasted more of the shrimp than the crab.
Overall though, we liked the bun bo and banh beo enough that we'd go back. My friend kept eyeing the desserts in the cold case, but was much too stuffed to order it. One of the owners noticed her constant glances and decided to heat up a che chuoi (Vietnamese banana pudding with tapioca pearls) and gave it to us for free. Now that's service! So even if we hadn't liked Mien Trung before, we definitely liked it more now.
Later that day, I headed up to Portland for a visit with my folks. When I got back a week later, my brother picked me up and asked me where I wanted to go for dinner. Where else? :P We rounded up cousin Q's older brother and his wife so we could attack more of the menu.
The $6 banh xeo comes two to a plate with an herb platter. In Vietnam, a Central-style banh xeo is only about 6 inches in diameter. Since it's impractical to make such small ones here, these are slightly larger, but definitely not the wok-sized Southern-style ones. No coconut milk, no turmeric. The golden color is the natural color when it gets crispy. They're not overly stuffed either, just the right amount of pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts.
The best part of Central-style banh xeo though is the crispy crepe. And it's not just crispy edges, the whole crepe stays crispy. Southerners, because the banh xeo is soggy in the middle, have to wrap it up in lettuce to be able to eat it. We just break it in sections with our chopsticks and shovel herbs into our mouths at the same time. The best banh xeo I've had in a restaurant so far. Well, mainly because Quan Mien Trung makes it like my momma makes it. :)
The $6 bun rieu (Vietnamese crab and shrimp vermicelli soup) was intensely red and tomato-y, but a bit bland actually. Needed more shrimp paste.
The $5 xoi chien (Vietnamese fried sticky rice) was stuffed with ground pork and tree ear fungus. The sticky rice was crispy on the outside and sticky on the inside. :) The sauce though was really quite bland. I think it was supposed to be peanut sauce? It didn't really taste like anything though, and I just spooned Nuoc Mam Cham (Vietnamese Fish Dipping Sauce) over it instead.
The $6 com ga Hai Nam (Hainanese chicken rice) only comes with Goi Ga (Vietnamese Chicken Salad). Sort of defeats the whole purpose of making the chicken if you tear it apart into a salad. Well, my family serves both the chicken and makes the chicken salad with leftovers. But it's nice to see that they do it the way my family does with just chicken, Hanh Dam (Vietnamese Vinegared Onions), and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander). The rice was flavorful and the salad was good, just don't order this expecting chopped chicken pieces.
We finished off dinner with a $6 bowl of bun bo nuong (Vietnamese grilled beef noodles) which came with a choice of Cha Gio (Vietnamese Spring/Egg Rolls) or Cha Ram (Vietnamese Shrimp Egg Rolls). They're not the same thing you know! And it's nice to dine at a restaurant that knows the difference. The beef was marinated with lemongrass, and came on a bed of noodles, shredded herbs, lettuce, and cucumbers, bean sprouts, and peanuts.
Later, Christine of Folie a Choisauce asked me for banh xeo recommendations and when I mentioned Quan Mien Trung, she immediately had to have some right then and there. So we ordered the banh xeo to share and since it was a Wednesday, the special was bun ca (Vietnamese fish noodles) for $6. Tuna fish filets! This is how my mom makes fish noodle soup and I hadn't ever seen this anywhere else. The soup also comes with fish paste balls and slices.
Somewhere along the way, I had a discussion with Tony C of SinoSoul about Quan Mien Trung and how I was trying to finish off their whole menu. There's only a few dozen items after all. So with Tony's better half and Danny of Kung Food Panda, we attempted to do just that.
On a lovely Sunday afternoon, we ordered the special bun sua (Vietnamese jellyfish noodles).
The jellyfish came with toasted rice paper, shredded herbs, green mango, peanuts, banana blossoms, and cabbage. The cold noodle salad was such a refreshing dish during the middle of summer.
The $6 mi quang (Vietnamese turmeric noodles with pork and shrimp) were just OK. A bit too much broth for me, about half of the bowl. I prefer a slightly drier version with grilled pork instead. Tony liked this a lot though.
This time, the bun bo dac biet actually was bun bo Hue, red and with lemongrass notes.
The $3 banh mi thit Qui Nhon turned out to be stuffed with Thit Heo Kho Trung (Vietnamese Braised Pork with Eggs). Ingenious. I'm totally stealing that idea. The French bread is from Mr. Baguette across the street and I'm not such a fan of baguette bread. I would have preferred lighter Vietnamese-French bread instead.
We wanted to order the $7 hen xuc banh trang (Vietnamese clams scooped with rice paper) but the clams weren't ready that day. :(
So then I talked WeezerMonkey into going with me on another day. The clams are tiny, tiny and came with chopped pork, peanuts, and mint leaves.
See how tiny they are? Scoop them up with the rice paper. Mmm. I love clams, although not everyone is a fan of bi-valves like I am.
And then, on another visit with Yeah Manh (Site not always suitable for work.), I asked them why they didn't offer Nem Nuong (Vietnamese Grilled Pork Patties) since it is our regional specialty. They do! Off-menu. :)
Anyway, so if you couldn't tell by the way I've been dragging all my blogger friends here, I really, really like Quan Mien Trung. Simple, comforting Vietnamese food almost as close to how my family makes it as I've found anywhere, including Banh Cuon Hai Nam Saigon - Alhambra (The owners are actually from my hometown, but the restaurant has a more limited menu).
My favorite dishes are the banh beo, banh xeo, xoi chien, bun sua, bun ca, bun thit nuong, and bun nem nuong.
But darn it, just when I thought I'd ordered enough of the menu, they keep adding dishes. They've been toying with the menu, adding and deleting items. It's a family affair with brothers and sisters and nephews all helping out. I'll have to come back on Mondays when the daily special is bun mang vit (Vietnamese duck and bamboo shoot noodle soup). And there's banh pho long bo (Vietnamese rice noodles with beef offal) on Fridays too.
November 19, 2012 Update: Sadly, this restaurant is now closed. :(
Other Central-style Vietnamese restaurants:
Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant - Alhambra
Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant - Rosemead
Ngu Binh Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Quan Hy Vietnamese Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Quan Vy Da Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Quan Mien Trung Vietnamese Cuisine
8632 Valley Blvd.
Rosemead, CA 91770
Monday to Friday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
1 year ago today, Chinese food from Xinjiang - beef, horse, and chocolate and yogurt raisins.
2 years ago today, I'm no Persephone because I can't resist eating just six of these lusciously sweet pomegranate seeds.