Category Archives: Vietnamese/Pho

Philly Phat Pho

Nam Phuong, self-proclaimed "best Vietnamese in Philly"

Nam Phuong, self-proclaimed “best Vietnamese in Philly”

Sometimes the headlines write themselves.

Road trippin’ to Philly over the weekend, we returned to the Vietnamese shopping plaza on Washington between 11th and 12th, just off Broad Street, home to Dung Phat Plaza and Hung Vuong Supermarket and, most critically, Nam Phuong, self-proclaimed “best Vietnamese restaurant in Philly” and who am I to argue?  In truth it is the only Vietnamese restaurant in Philly at which I have dined, so I can’t compare it to the others; in some existential sense maybe it is the only Vietnamese restaurant in Philly?  Does it depend on the meaning of “is”?

Anyway.  Dung Phat (*this* close to Hung Phat; I wish I understood the Vietnamese language) may be the whole block or just a piece of the plaza, which overall is kind of Eden Center’s grubby younger sibling.  Several restaurants, a big supermarket, lots of other random stores, awkwardly arranged. We first visited during the blog hiatus, a year or so ago. This Philly neighborhood could be charitably described as “transitional” except I don’t think it is actually transitioning.  Grittier and more feral than Wheaton, let’s say.  It’s almost surprising that Nam Phuong* has a website.

* WordPress suggests “fungi” instead of “Phuong” — I guess WordPress doesn’t speak Vietnames either.

We were instructed by the locals not to order off the “today’s specials” board, since it hasn’t been changed in years; today is every day and the dishes aren’t special.  No problem: the menu boasts over 200 rice, noodle, soup, and other options. Based on two visits (with big groups), soup is the way to go here; the rice and noodle dishes are okay, just standard.  The soups are excellent, both various pho offerings and dozens of nuanced noodle soups.  On the recent visit I tried the (#146) beef noodle soup “Hue Style – Spicy” and it was a big, brilliant bowl of fiery, rich beef broth, abundant thin beef slices, and various vegetables, especially leeks. Deep reddish-brown and yet with some clarity, the broth was an ideal savory-spicy balance.  I sweated some — rub a dub in the pho tub, owwwwww! hot –but not too hot.

Other highlights include the Vietnamese crepe (#109), a crisp omelet stuffed with seafood and sprouts, and the make-your-own-spring rolls (#???), where you get to dunk dried rice paper into water and then roll up your choice of greens, sprouts, and barbecued pork (I think).  Fun for the whole table, if you like that kind of thing.

Hung Vuong Supermarket

Hung Vuong Supermarket

The BBQ pork rolls might also be good, I bet they are, but our order never showed up.  It did show up on the bill, oopsie, but they took it off.  Actually, the service is generally excellent, the pork rolls were the only blip. Portions are outrageously large and prices are low, overall great value here considering the quality is between solid and excellent depending on what you order.  Compared with Wheaton’s Mi La Cay, Nam Phuong is bigger and cheaper (by $1-3 per dish, and grungier, but portion size and average quality are about the same, I would say.

Nam Phuong also offers seemingly infinite permutations of bubble teas — the blue taro flavor is our group favorite, but people seemed to like the cappuccino, and the list went on and on with flavors and styles and I don’t remember any of it because tapioca (the “bubbles”) is on The List of things that, I believe, are a culinary affront to humanity (your mileage, like Mrs. Me’s, may differ).  I should do a post on that sometime.

After lunch we took a spin through Hung Vuong supermarket across the parking lot, bigger and more feral than H Mart, but with a greater variety of sauces and pastes (like, several dozen different shrimp pastes), and a pretty good sweets aisle where Mrs. Me picked up some sugary mango candy to go with a tin of tamarind drops, her new addiction.  They are quite good, I have to admit.  HV had limes but only in bags of four for $2, not a bad price but they all had brown spots.  Wheaton Safeway today had .50 limes and while small they are juicy, so maybe things are looking up, lime-wise. And that’s how you work limes into whatever blog post.

Meet the New Wheaton, Not Entirely Same As the Old Wheaton

Welcome to Wheaton indeed

Welcome to Wheaton indeed

Strolling around Wheaton to see what’s what these days.  Lots of what is still the same as it ever was.  Also lots of new.  The view from the intersection of Reedie/Viers Mill/Grandview encapsulates the current Wheaton state of affairs: new(ish) Welcome to Wheaton sign, with Marchone’s striped awning (old school) in background left and 17 stories of apartments (new school) background right.  A few notes:

Seoul Food, in the gas station at Georgia/University, is pretty good, full review to follow in a day or three.  Korean food but with Mexican/American elements.

La Baguette de Salvador

La Baguette de Salvador

More fusion: La Baguette de Paris French bakery (local chain?) has been open for a few months in the Max’s/Full Key strip mall on University.  Lest one expect a true Parisian patisserie, La Baguette caters to a Latino crowd, with wares more or less identical  to Caramelo. Samantha’s also has baked goods (Dulce Vida did too, next to Samantha’s, but it closed last year).  I’d be surprised if La Baguette lasts any longer than Dulce Vida did, there can’t be enough demand to sustain so much Salavadoran baking in a three block radius.  The eclairs did look good though.By the way: Max’s is still there (try the shwarma or falafel), but Shalom Kosher has moved to the Kemp Mill Shopping Center off Arcola, where it is all grown up into a full size grocery store, still with excellent meats and breads and kosherness.  Its former storefront in the Wheaton strip is currently vacant.

A commenter mentioned seeing something about a future “Taco Loco” establishment near El Pollo Rico on University, but I looked and couldn’t find anything like that.  Am I just missing it, or was it someone’s fleeting dream, or was it just a false rumor?

Someone else noted Mi La Cay is open in its new location on the Wong Gee strip on University. Mrs. Me has been to the new location and confirms it is just as good as the old one, only bigger!  MLC does excellent Vietnamese food, the fiery curries are not dialed down at all for the Western palate, I need to get over there soon.  The old MLC space behind Hung Phat is available for rent — given the success of MLC and previous tenant Nava Thai, someone ought to grab it and start something new pronto.  Hopefully Indian or some other Asian variation not yet in Wheaton — Sri Lankan? Pakistani?

The University strip space formerly occupied by Dusit Thai and Sabores (nee Gloria’s Caribbean nee Irene’s III) has been less successful and remains unleased.  Parking is a little tough right there, may be part of the problem, and the Sabores space is tiny.  But strip bookends New Kam Fong and The Chicken Place are hanging in there.

Twice the Kantutas

Twice the Kantutas

Mi La Cay isn’t the only recent expansion: Kantutas (Bolivian cuisine) has more than doubled its space on Ennals, and even has a little outdoor seating area now.  It takes a bit of hunting since it is off the main drag, but well worth the hunt. I’m so happy for the success of MLC and Kantutas, both are run by super-friendly people, and the food is outstanding, two of Wheaton’s best restaurants in fact.


Eatin’ in Wheaton, Pelecanos Style

George Pelecanos has written a bunch of stuff, perhaps most notably HBO’s The Wire (with David Simon) but also a series of novels, mostly crime fiction, set in greater Washington, D.C.  Among Pelecanos’ strong points are his seamless injections of accurate local color into his plots. I have only just begun exploring Pelecanos’ books, but the first one I picked up, The Way Home, includes visits to two loosely-described yet clearly recognizable Wheaton restaurants.

First, two characters go on a date to  Wheaton for pho at a restaurant “in a commercial strip of Landromats and Kosher and Chinese grocers…diners sat communally at tables similar to those found in school cafeterias.”  This brief description obviously refers to the strip on University from Max’s Kosher Deli to Shalom Kosher grocery to (no longer there) Asian Foods grocery to a laundromat to Full Key Chinese restaurant (to liquore store) to, on the East end, Pho Hiep Hoa, which is indeed cafeteria-like and nearly ambience-free (which, in a way, is perfect cheap pho house ambience).  Despite (or maybe thanks to) the atmosphere, Pho Hiep Hoa serves pretty decent soup, though I prefer Song Phat — but the characters in The Way Home are absolutely the kind of folks who would visit Pho Hiep Hoa on a date.  Ring of truth, for sure.

About 25 pages later, a real estate agent holds court at “a Thai restaurant up in Wheaton, off University Boulevard, in an area heavy with Hispanics and Orthodox Jews…the restaurant itself had little ambience, holding eight four-tops and a half-dozen deuces, with the standard royal family portraits hung on plain blue walls.”  Again, a no-frills description that is totally accurate, and clearly the restaurant (“Thai Feast” in the book) is Ruan Thai, which was a little pastel-blue-walled dive before it was renovated last year (The Way Home was published in 2009). The passage continues, noting that “the food was clean, the service mostly efficient, and the specials went for four dollars and ninety-five cents” — not sure the specials are that cheap anymore, but the rest still holds true (and of course the food is better than clean, it is fantastic!).  I’m looking forward to reading more Pelecanos, both because he tells a good story, but also to see what other local spots pop up.  If anyone knows of any other instances of Wheaton restaurants showing up in works of fiction, please post in the comments.  I love this kind of thing.

The Phattest Song Of All

Amidst all the recent (deserved) hype for Ren’s Ramen there have been some voices raised in support of Mi La Cay (aka Song Phat, sort of), a hole in the wall in the back of Hung Phat market on Fern Street, in the original Nava Thai location — apparently the space magically makes food good!  I had last visited Mi La Cay a few years ago, right after it opened, and I remember liking it, but recent rave reviews from Hungry Like The Bear, among others, tempted me to return.

And thank goodness, because Mi La Cay may be the best value in Wheaton, which is a food value mecca, so that’s saying something.  The menu is long — rice, noodles, soups in mad variety — and almost everything is $7 or $8 dollars. Portions are fairly large, quality is high.  Mrs. Me got the pho with white meat chicken, and she liked it a lot.   I ordered the curry (dark meat) chicken with vermicelli noodles soup, and was blown away by the huge steaming bowl of awesome.  The surface was a glistening swirl of bright orange and red and yellow, like a summer Vietnamese sunset, just gorgeous, and it tasted like it looked: rich and hot.  My whole head was a disco inferno; I haven’t sweated so much since I demanded extra-spicy vindaloo at Tiffin.  The soup cleared my pores and emptied my sinuses; it may have melted my sinuses clean away — I haven’t been congested for days.  But it wasn’t just hot, it was balanced and delicious and plentiful. I didn’t need to eat the whole thing, I wasn’t really that hungry, but I couldn’t stop.  The sign of a quality dish: when you know you shouldn’t eat the whole thing but oops there it went.

High quality, large portions, inexpensive.  Winner.  I wouldn’t compare it to Ren’s ramen (although I will say that the serving size is basically the same — plenty big), because the styles are so different.  You can’t compare New Haven pizza to Chicago pizza — well, you can, but they’re so different what’s the point? — and trying to compare pho to ramen makes no more sense.  But Mi La Cay’s soups are several dollars cheaper than Ren’s, and there are dozens of options rather than just four.  They’re both great, and when you also consider the excellent soups like tom kha and tom yum at Dusit and Ruan and Nava (plus the fiery floating market soup at the latter), there’s about a two block stretch of Wheaton with some of the best Asian soup variety, quantity, and quality anywhere in greater DC.  Good to remember now that it is already apparently snow season…

Kliman: Saigonese Banh Mi “Pretty Good”

Can’t argue with that brief comment from yesterday’s Todd Kliman Washingtonian food chat.  Not hall-of-fame banh mi quality, but excellent bread, tasty, satisfying.  Pretty good. Yes.  Saigonese has a half dozen banh mi varieties and a huge menu besides — everything I’ve ever had there qualifies as “pretty good” though charcoal pork is probably best, aside from the banh mi. Their website is evidently defunct, hope that’s not an omen.

First Monday in October News

As predicted, grilled lemon chicken from Saigonese made excellent “leftovers” today.

Like me, Wheaton Calling is back, baby!

Wheaton Patch enjoyed New Kam Fong (2400 University, no website as far as we know) (me, too).

And in less Wheatony news, first-Monday-in-October appropriate: argument begins today in the Rogue States-Steptoe burger aroma faceoff in D.C. Superior Court.

October and Saigonese

One month later, I guess that’s enough of a blogging battery recharge. The eatin’ in Wheaton remains good. Lunch today at Saigonese (11232 Grandview), where I was the only diner during much of my meal. I don’t know if that is normal Friday lunch business or if the economy is to blame or if I have violated some Vietnamese-food-is-forbidden-on-October-1 rule.  There were a couple of takeout orders, and one couple arrived after I was almost done.

As I was leaving, a pair of women arrived and had this conversation with the server:
Women: Is this a Thai restaurant?
Server: No.
Women: Oh, someone told us this was a Thai restaurant.
Women: Do you know where there is a Thai restaurant?
Server: No.

Lucky for everyone, I was able to direct them to the East side of Georgia, where all of Wheaton’s Thai restaurants live.  I sent them to Nava, but if they stumbled across Dusit or Suporn or Ruan on the way I’m sure that worked out just fine.

Right, my lunch: special #1, charcoal pork with noodles and veggies (large bowl, solid value at $6.95) and a Vietnamese iced coffee, sweet, rich, really went well with the pork. Also got some lemongrass chicken to go, that will make a nice lunch on Monday, if it lasts that long.