By Miles Clements
November 4, 2009
There's an unquestionable comfort in Hoang Yen's chao. The Vietnamese congee is a homey, hearty meal of rice boiled down until it takes on a consistency somewhere between that of oatmeal and Cream of Wheat. Even for those whose childhood memories revolve around grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, the porridge possesses an innate familiarity.
All of Hoang Yen's dishes share that fundamental comfort. Simple pleasures define the year-old restaurant, which replaced a Mexican eatery that was awkwardly grafted onto the backside of late-night standby Luc Dinh Ky. Hoang Yen's succinct menu of Vietnamese family classics better occupies the narrow space.
The Westminster restaurant is decidedly modern: deep blue tiles climb one wall as if to draw a high-water mark; a flat-screen TV recedes elegantly into the back of the dining room. It's a clean style cultivated by the Chau family, which runs Hoang Yen with a welcoming air. The result is an open and inclusive space where uniformed electricians lunch alongside young mothers, and businessmen pop in for takeout as they pass through Little Saigon.
While some nearby restaurants bury their dac biet dishes among hundreds of items, Hoang Yen's specials are easy to discern. The standout appetizer is banh khot, tiny rice-batter cakes colored turmeric-yellow, made silken by coconut milk and each topped with a single shrimp. Elsewhere, banh khot is often fried, a process that can render the tartlets as dry and brittle as calorie-free rice cakes. Here, they're cooked in a banh khot pan cratered with concave cups in which the bottoms of the cakes become crisp while their centers retain an ideal softness. Wrap one in leaves of lettuce, basil and mint before a dip in some ubiquitous nuoc cham for a couple of perfect bites.
Porridges are prominent at Hoang Yen. There are nine varieties, with top billing going to chao long, a porridge studded with assorted pork innards. It's popular, but chao long is arguably ordered more as a panacea, the kind of cure-all whose powers derive from merely summoning the courage to consume it.
If intestines or huyet (jellied blocks of pig's blood) aren't your idea of comfort, there are bowls loaded instead with bone-in cuts of chicken or duck as well as fish and shrimp.
When it takes on too much water, chao can be insufferably thin and bland. But Hoang Yen's is sufficiently thick with a hint of ginger and a scattering of scallions and fried shallots. Chao isn't a bold dish (spoon in chile sauce if you want extra bite), but its subtlety can be habit-forming. Hoang Yen's bowls are an addiction you'll find yourself feeding whenever the skies turn gray.
Noodle soups here plumb pho-less depths. The restaurant passes over the famous soup in favor of options such as bun vit sao mang, a duck noodle soup with bamboo shoots. It's understated and greaseless, its most dominant feature probably being the bamboo, which has a slippery, fibrous texture comparable to cactus. Bun nuoc leo, however, is not so delicate -- the seafood soup is based on a strong fermented fish broth.
Hoang Yen makes a great rendition of banh canh gio heo tom thit, a soup of thin-sliced barbecued pork, pork hock and tender shrimp in a tangle of thick udon-like noodles. There's also hu tieu, another simple, focused pork soup, this time with translucent tapioca noodles. Both have a certain comforting clarity.
"Broken rice" plates eat up a lot of the menu, though most are derivations of the same theme. You can cover your broken-rice bases with com tam bi cha suon tau hu ky, a particularly porcine combination that contains nearly all the possible components: shredded pork, a pork loaf, a pork chop and a shrimp loaf encased in fried sheets of bean curd.
Hoang Yen's vermicelli salads follow a similar formula, a dozen or so options that swap toppings. The best versions are inevitably those with complementary pairings such as the grilled pork and shrimp of the bun tom thit nuong.
Comfort food is possibly the only true borderless cuisine, rightly prized for its ability to tease out flavor-enhancing nostalgia regardless of provenance. And many of Hoang Yen's recipes have that appeal. These are simple dishes that, if they can't dig up a sentimental memory, will quickly generate a new one.
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