Tuesday, June 16, 2009

KC restaurant reviews: A tale of three Vietnamese restaurants

First, the background: tonight I was going to check out New Peking, a Chinese restaurant in Westport I had heard was pretty good. The menu was not encouraging. It looked like a somewhat-overpriced American Chinese restaurant I could get back home, or probably anywhere for that matter. Instead, I decided to go to Mimi's Vietnamese Cafe, a restaurant I'd passed last time I was on 39th St. While I was there, I realized that it was the third Vietnamese place I'd been to in KC, and to emulate one of my favorite blogs, Eating Asia, decided to review them all!

First, Mimi's. While at the other two places I'd had pho, here I decided to try bun rieu ($8.15, but including the 10% tax) instead. The menu claimed it was a soup with chicken broth, chicken/crab/shrimp fritters, stewed tomatoes, rice noodles, and garnishes. Well, the noodles were overdone or precooked; the fritters were more or less chicken meatloaf; there was no plate of herbs to accompany; and it wasn't spicy even though I'd asked for it as such. It was more of a generically Asian chicken soup - tasty enough (except for the noodles), but not particularly Vietnamese. I'm beginning to think that most of the ethnic restaurants in the more popular areas here are not good. Clearly digging into corners is required - like the next place on my list!

I've been searching for Korean food in KC since I moved here. It was everywhere in Ann Arbor, so it's hard for me to adjust to a town that doesn't really have any. I thought I'd found my answer in Kim Son, up near the City Market. However, I arrived there and discovered that it was actually Vietnamese. I tried it anyway!

Kim Son's pho ($6-something, I think) was a pretty immense portion of flavorful beef broth, served over thinly-sliced steak, onions, and rice noodles, with a good big plate of herbs and bean sprouts on the side. Just the way it should be. The meat was excellent - it was obviously raw before the hot broth was poured over, as it came out very pink and quickly darkened. The rice noodles were chewy and the right width for pho. A delicious added bonus was a bowl of smoky chopped chilies in oil with garlic. I don't know if it was lajiao you or something else, but it added a fantastic earthy spiciness to the dish and definitely set it apart from the other bowls of pho I've had before. And of course, Kim Son is a bit off the beaten path - it's at 3rd and Cherry, right by the bridge that carries MO-9 over the Missouri.

Last (but the first I tried here) is Hien Vuong. It's inside the City Market complex, next to a bunch of other restaurants. It's also the smallest of the three, but they have some pretty quick turnover so it's always easy to get a table. And it's the cheapest! Just $4.50 for a bowl of pho, if memory serves me right. They have all the goodies - meat, noodles, herbs, sprouts, sriracha, hoisin, and some other kind of delicious chili sauce - but the real star here is the broth. It's just slightly sweet, but doesn't throw off the other flavors of the dish, and has an amazingly complex flavor that's hard to describe. It's beefy, well-spiced, and pretty addictive, to be honest. The portion is the smallest of the three, but that says more about the other two restaurants - this is still plenty of pho for one meal.

Mimi's Vietnamese Cafe/Saigon 39 - 1806 1/2 W. 39th St. (between Bell and State Line)

Kim Son - 315 Cherry (Cherry and 4th St., actually)

Hien Vuong - nominally 417 Main St., but it's really on the west wall of the City Market)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I've been reading about this dish called adobo for several weeks, and then last week I couchsurfed with some wonderful people in Dayton, and they made bison adobo for dinner. Well then, of course I had to try it for myself! Adobo is a Filipino dish of meat braised in soy sauce and vinegar, and it's pretty damn delicious. Pork is probably the most common meat to use, but I had bought some chicken thighs earlier in the week, so that's what went in.

Sadly, I forgot to take a picture of the finished dish - that's the meat waiting to go back into the sauce. If I remember tomorrow, I'll take a picture of everything on my plate.

Meat - I used about a pound and a quarter of bone-in chicken thighs
Vinegar - I combined balsamic and red wine, but I would have used rice vinegar if I hadn't dropped my bottle on the floor the other day *grumble grumble*
Soy sauce - I combined regular soy sauce and kecap manis to counteract the vinegar with some sweetness
Black pepper, cracked or ground - grinding it will save you the trouble of picking out peppercorns in the finished dish
Bay leaf
Onion, thinly sliced - I used one, but two would be better
Garlic, minced - four or five cloves

In a Dutch oven or other large pot, quickly brown the chicken on all sides, then add the garlic and onion. When the onion softens (just a few minutes), add the vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaf, and black pepper, bring to the boil, and then simmer until the meat is cooked through. Reduce the sauce until it thickens slightly, and serve over rice.

Believe it or not, that's the basic recipe. I went further and fished out the chicken, then cut the meat off the bones and diced it into bite-size pieces, then added it back to the reduced sauce to glaze it. I just didn't want to be bothered with slicing meat off the bone while I was trying to enjoy my dinner!

As I noted above, I only used one onion tonight, but it gets so deliciously caramelized while simmering in the sauce that I'm definitely using two next time. The only problem with this dish as I made it tonight is the saltiness, brought on by all that tasty soy sauce. Next time I'm going to slice a potato and add it with the liquid, as I'm pretty sure potatoes can be used to absorb salt and then discarded.


Something else that I don't have a picture of is a great broccoli stir-fry that I made a few days ago. I used garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and doubanjiang, which is a Sichuan paste of fermented broad beans and chilis. The brand I have is Ming Teh, and it is pretty fantastic stuff.

Broccoli stir-fry
Heat a wok or cast iron pan (I don't have a wok) over high heat, and add about a tablespoon of oil - something with a high smoke point, like peanut or canola or corn. When it shimmers, add some minced garlic and ginger, and a couple tablespoons of doubanjiang. Stir-fry for about a minute, then add broccoli florets and stir-fry for another two minutes or so, until it's coated in the sauce. Turn off the heat, toss with a bit of sesame oil, and eat!