Dine like a Vietnamese emperor

It's just before the dinner rush at Huong Giang, a central Vietnamese restaurant in Westminster's Little Saigon, and dozens of dim-sum-like dishes obscure our tabletop. Chopsticks eagerly reach for fat little shrimp-filled dumplings and impossibly tender rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. We pass around silver dollar-size rice pancakes topped with pork cracklings and nibble on Vietnamese cold cuts swathed in freshly steamed rice noodle sheets as airy as chiffon.

These small bites may have the feel of new wave dim sum or the latest Asian-influenced gastropub, but they belong to the legendary cuisine of central Vietnam — the most sophisticated of the country's three major culinary regions — whose capital city, Hue, enjoys the cachet of Paris, Rome or Shanghai among Vietnamese food lovers. Intricate and labor intensive, its dishes are known for their complex garnishings and multiple layerings of sweet-savory tastes.

Still, while Southern California's pho emporia and banh mi shops have basked in the foodie limelight, the central Vietnamese restaurant scene has remained a small, quiet niche, unfamiliar to a wide audience. But the recent surging popularity of bun bo Hue, the region's spicy beef and pork noodle soup, has helped put the genre into expansion mode.

Two well-loved places in Westminster, Ngu Binh and Quan Vy Da, have gone from holes-in-the-wall to stylish dining rooms. Meanwhile, Huong Giang's owner, Nga Thi Bich Nguyen, who also owns two central-Vietnamese-style delis, recently opened Huong Vy, her most ambitious, upmarket project to date. And newcomers Hue Oi and Tay Thuong have also thrown their fortunes into the mix.

It's easy to understand this food's allure when you tuck into Huong Giang's com hen, or baby clam rice. Tossed with tart green apple slivers and a dizzying bouquet of fresh minced herbs, its bright flavors and textural contrasts jolt the senses as much as anything you might have had at LudoBites. Garnishes of roasted peanuts, caramelized shallots, sesame seeds and crispy banh da — puffy rice crackers used to scoop up bites — lend crunch and pop and a shalloty sweetness that sends a flood of flavor across the palate.

Nowadays this bowl of modest splendor might set you back around $6. But in the early 19th century, when Vietnam's last dynasty ruled in decadence from Hue, it would have been strictly reserved for an extravagant aristocracy. The emperors demanded 50-course meals that couldn't be repeated within the year. At some point, the cooks' creativity trickled down to the hoi polloi, turning Hue into the food mecca we know now.

Even today, walking the streets of Da Nang, Hoi An or Hue, you'll see street vendors balancing long shoulder poles holding cookware and baskets. They'll sell a specific charcuterie or banh (as central Vietnam rice cakes and dumplings are called) that they, or perhaps their parents or even grandparents, perfected.

Westminster has no such vendors but is rife with delis known for snacky foods and banh. People buy the delicacies by the trayful for parties and family gatherings.

But diners eat in at Nguyen's newer restaurant Huong Vy, with its bistro ambience, stylized tropical décor and expanded offering of entrees. It's thrilling (and rare) to see banh khoai on any menu. The crispy, airy shells of pounded rice, which look a little like fried taco shells, require substantial skill to make. Filled with shrimp, pork and vegetables, they're delicious as is or wrapped in lettuce and herbs and dipped in the accompanying sweet-salty-fruity sauce. Banh it ram, another tour de force, combines chewy balls of warm shrimp-and-pork-filled mochi, each perched on a puffy silver-dollar-size, deep-fried rice cakelet. Every bite merges soft, springy and briny sensations — a textural ta-da!

No one makes Vietnamese charcuterie — various sausages and meat loaves — like Nguyen's shops and restaurants. Her cha the Hue, with a texture like mortadella, or the more highly seasoned, coarser nem Hue have the pure meaty taste and hand-formed texture of home cooking rather than the over-processed feel of similar supermarket products.

The most amazing of these meats, translated as "Huong Giang's special periwinkle ham" on the menu at Huong Giang, is a smooth pork sausage incorporating tiny flecks of the minced mollusk formed around a stalk of lemon grass and ginger slivers before it's steamed. The delicate, slightly chewy meat with faint seafood overtones would command three times its $5.75 price tag in trendier neighborhoods.

Not to miss here is the mind-blowing jackfruit noodle salad or mi quang, turmeric-colored rice noodles in a rich curry-like sauce under a dozen or so embellishments.

The best central Vietnamese cooks are fussy about coordinating specific dipping sauces to complement the flavor of each dish. This is why Nu Le, chef and co-owner of Quan Vy Da, is so meticulous about serving a light, clear fish sauce blend sans garlic with her shrimp-filled banh nam cha tom. The thin banana leaf packets, resembling flat tamales, come stacked like so many playing cards and open to reveal an assertively flavored, custard-y rice flour and shrimp filling. On the other hand, she offers a lemony-garlicky dip to accent more delicately flavored banh such as banh uot tom chay, warm translucent rice sheets wrapped around fresh shrimp to form cigar-shaped rolls.

With such attention to detail it's no wonder Le and her husband, Calvin, needed to expand their tiny linoleum-clad cafe. A few years ago they doubled the floor space, added a wall of water trickling into a koi pond and installed wraparound plate glass windows. It took just weeks before the new rooms were bursting at the seams with customers.

It's hard not to order the whole menu here. Should you get the fantastic jackfruit salad? Or the shredded duck soup with its plate of roasted sliced duck meat served alongside? Or maybe the braised, shredded chicken meat accompanied by yet another dip of gingered fish sauce? It's all going to be wonderful.

Equally wonderful is Ngu Binh, where owner Mai Tran, having recently moved from a pint-size space to a much larger one in the same mall, has seriously upgraded her restaurant's appeal by replacing the former funky untranslated Xeroxed menu with a shiny new photo-illustrated one. Now you can see that banh beo dia, silver-dollar size rice cakes, are served on a plate, whereas even thinner banh beo chen come in the little saucers in which they were steamed. Both, topped with shrimp and crunchy, porky mini chicharrones, are another ode to textural contrast.

Even so, for Ngu Binh's many fans the now-stylish restaurant with its black lacquer furnishings and gorgeous floral arrangements is still all about the bun bo Hue and mi quang, neon-yellow rice noodles in an unctuous curry-like stewed pork sauce, earthy roasted peanuts, scallions, puffy rice disks and a long parade of other adornments.

Popular though these places are, the contender for the most influential central Vietnamese restaurant — one that was way ahead of its time — is Quan Hy. Opened about 10 years ago as a tiny spot on Westminster, it eventually secured a location in a splashy mall in the epicenter of Little Saigon. It wasn't just the new location, English-fluent staff and designer décor with its Lucite-covered mini-river that attracted the multicultural crowds, but rather its refined cooking and many vegetarian offerings.

In Quan Hy's bun bo Hue, for instance, tiny diamond-shaped shrimp quenelles and slices of meat bob in the delicately spicy, richly flavorful broth (instead of the traditionally reeky shrimp paste and skin-on pork hock that grace other versions).

With the success of Quan Hy, the Tran family opened Quan Hop, a smart pan-regional restaurant where the menu includes many of the same central Vietnamese dishes, vegetarian offerings and beautifully crafted banh. A stellar banh it ram and exquisite banh beo arrive on lacquered trays, arranged as precisely as kaiseki bento. Just as important, the restaurant marked the initial spread of Hue cuisine beyond the dead center of Little Saigon.

Last spring saw the arrival of Hue Oi north of the Garden Grove freeway and Tay Thuong on Westminster. But the farthest afield, Kim Hoa Hue, serves the best and most authentic central Vietnamese food in the San Gabriel Valley.

The homey restaurant in a charmingly converted bungalow stands out amid myriad storefront pho shops and taquerias in its El Monte neighborhood. Evidently it's also a deli. The last menu page illustrates nearly 20 party trays to go. But for sit-down meals, flip to the menu section labeled "cakes/banh" to find an excellent banh uot thit nurong (No. C6) of charbroiled ground pork strips wrapped in freshly made rice sheets (not dried rice papers). These, along with nine other banh, measure up to Little Saigon standards.

The kitchen turns out fine jackfruit and chopped baby clam salads, each with a plethora of herbs and crunchy, nutty garnishes. The somewhat timid bun bo Hue can be livened up with chile sauce from the table.

Gossamer and silky, the near weightlessness of the banh beo chen and banh beo dia are a reliable gauge of the kitchen's skills. Which is to say that even at its most humble, this noble cuisine, with its grand variety of small savories, intricate flavorings and jump-in-the-mouth vitality, still bears the hallmarks of an imperial lineage.

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