Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pho Le Loi, San Gabriel - Hot Fish on the Platter (Dill & Turmeric Fish Noodles)

Pho Le Loi San Gabriel

Pho restaurants in San Gabriel Valley have proliferated over the last two decades – many of the restaurateurs moving out to the area because of heavy competition in the primordial roots of Little Saigon in Westminster. We all have our favorites in SGV and Little Saigon, and find it difficult to digress from the familiar places like Golden Deli, Vietnam House, Saigon Flavor, Pho 54 and Pho 79. Driving by a place like the one pictured above makes it hard to park and try it out. It's easy to overlook this as another pho restaurant because of its name. But it wasn't until I noticed the smaller words under 'Pho Le Loi' and a mentioning from a Chicago/LA foodie by the name of ErikM that I decided to try it. And I couldn't be more glad that I stopped by.

What is cha ca thang long? It's a delicious fish dish cooked with dill and turmeric, originating from Hanoi, Vietnam. It's served on a sizzling platter with a haystack of white onions and dill with fixings including rice noodles, herbs, vegetables and dipping sauce. At Hanoi's famous restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong, the fish is parcooked inside the kitchen and finished off at the table to really whet the appetite of the patrons. The sound of the sizzling fish, intense heaps of aromatic dill and smell of white onions really sets the stage for a good meal. I first had a variation of this dish at Viet Soy Cafe in Silver Lake and enjoyed it enough to make it at home.

I walked in with Jeni and her brother and were greeted by a happy young man and his mother wearing an apron. One quick look at the menu, and we knew what we already wanted to try. Their eyes lit up when I told them that they offered cha ca thang long, a dish they had eaten in Vietnam last year. Besides the sizzling platter version of the dill & turmeric fish dish, you can also order it in a fish paste form, which I also love.

Pho Le Loi Bun Ca Thi La1

Bun Ca Thi La - Dill & Turmeric Fish Soup Noodles
Expecting something similar that I ate at Viet Soy Cafe, I actually got happy because it resembled, or actually is, bun rieu. Bun rieu is a tomato-based soup with crab and vermicelli noodles that comes with your choice of either the dill & turmeric fish paste or periwinkle sea snails (oc) – these two being the most popular. I ate this at Vien Dong in Little Saigon and it was simply awesome. Anyway, great aroma to this dish due to the perfect amount of tomatoes and dill used. The crab was moist and carried the tomato-flavor like a sponge. I saved the best part (fish paste) for last. Pho Le Loi's version, as you can see, is heavily specked with black pepper and tastes different than Vien Dong's – nonetheless very good. Maggi, the chef/owner, said they use rockfish to make their fish paste. I love this dish because it really entices the palate, like bun bo hue, which is another favorite of mine.

Pho Le Loi Bun Ca Thi La2

Bac Ha - A Tuber Native to Southeast Asia
This is the first time I've eaten this type of tuber. Wikipedia states that is somewhat like a taro root, but this is more or less the stem of the plant. This is used a lot in Vietnamese and Cambodian cooking because it is porous and really retains the flavor of soup like a sponge. It looked somewhat like a celery but reminded me of a type of Chinese bamboo shoot used in Mongolian-style hot pot. Expecting it to be soggy, I was surprised by how crisp and textured it was. One bite into this and the faucets of soup were turned on. Loved it. Reminded me a lot of Chinese soupy dumplings (xiao long bao).

Pho Le Loi Cha Ca Thang Long1

Cha Ca Thang Long - Dill & Turmeric Fish on Sizzling Platter
You can be in a loud HK-style cafe in SGV yapping away with your drunk friends, eating beef chow mein or wonton soup noodles and suddenly hear a sound like ttttttttttttttttthiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiisssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. It can only mean the beautiful sound of something delicious sizzling in a black iron platter. I was busy getting a facial in my bowl of soup noodles and heard that wonderful sound. All 3 of us looked back and saw the happy young man walking towards us with the prized dish in his hand – the dish sizzling with so many onions that the steam nearly blocked out his face. Awesome. He set the platter down and we admired this haystack of goodness. As you can see, the fish is almost nowhere to be seen, like a Navy Seal in the jungles of Laos. Look at all those onions and dill. The onions, as with Korean BBQ restaurants, act as padding for the fish as well as last minute flavor boosters. The parade didn't stop as the server came back another two times to bring us noodles, vegetables, two types of sauce (one made with finely ground shrimp sauce and the ubiquitous nuc mam), peanuts and black sesame rice crackers. All of this for $13.99 – enough to feed two needy people. Vien Dong in Little Saigon also serves this dish – again, a very friendly and solid restaurant in OC.

Pho Le Loi Cha Ca Thang Long2

DIY Vietnamese Food
What I love about Vietnamese food is that you aren't limited to eating styles. If you like to 'interact' with your food and be your own chef, this will make you happy. With the fish sizzling on the platter, you can decide between lettuce for a wrap or you can do it like this. Grab some bun rice noodles, fish, onions, dill and your choice of sauce and stir it up. The fish had nice texture but tasted slightly overcooked – but that's our fault. We didn't eat it right away because we were still finishing the aforementioned dish. My tip for you: eat this RIGHT AWAY so that you get the fish at its best. Nonetheless, this was really tasty and fun to eat. I ate all the onions on the platter!

Pho Le Loi Sesame Crackers

I have never felt this full in a Vietnamese restaurant. I usually get full really quickly, but that's because I'm guzzling all the soup. This is filling meal that I'll continue to have. The service is good and the people here wear smiles. Besides these two dishes, they offer the standard Vietnamese fare like egg rolls, pork chop and noodles. They however, do not offer beef pho – only chicken pho (pho ga). However, these are just extras walking around in the back of a movie – the real stars are anything made with dill & turmeric. And to top off everything, for the first time in a long time, I was not thirsty after eating Vietnamese food – especially after pho. Cheers to Pho Le Loi for not dumping MSG all over the place.

If you have any more suggestions for cha ca thang long, would love to hear about it. I've heard about Hanoi Restaurant in Little Saigon and have added that to my long list of Little Saigon places to eat at. Thanks for reading.

Pho Le Loi
107 E. Valley Blvd. (Just east of Del Mar Avenue)
San Gabriel, CA 91776

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