vietnamese


We joke around our house that our father is a dyed in the wool China Man, especially when mealtimes are concerned. Like me, dad is an adventurous eater (you can’t call someone who’s had dog meat otherwise), but nowadays, he is happiest when there’s rice on the table.  Consequently, we incorporated an Asian meal everyday while we were in Paris. Paris is not exactly known for the diversity of ethnic food options, but with some tips and a little sleuthing, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Asian food Paris had to offer.
The 13th arrondisement was our stomping grounds for Asian cuisine, being where Pari’s original Chinatown (another has sprung up in Belleville) is located. Over the course of 3 nights, we became intimately familiar with the triangular patch of urban area marked by Tolbiac, Porte d’Ivry and Porte d’Choisy metro stops, each almost equidistant from the row of restaurants that line both Avenues d’Ivry and Choisy.
pho special at pho 14

pho special at pho 14

Vietnam was part of the French Indochine, so we were not surprised to see a good representation of Vietnamese cuisine in Paris. I found Pho 14 by way of chowhound, and the pho was just what the doctor ordered on a night where temperatures had plummeted 10 degrees celsius from the night ago. The lines were spilling out of the restaurant as we arrived and people actually opted for quicker but chillier al fresco dining in sub 40s weather. A neighboring Vietnamese pho shop happily absorbed the spillover from Pho 14, but for those who wait, they will be treated to steaming bowls of pho. Both the beef and chicken broth, while a little less scalding hot than I prefer had meaty, concentrated flavors and were topped with fresh meat and the bounciest meatballs I’ve seen in a while. We also ate freshly fried spring rolls wrapped in lettuce and dipped in sweet and smelly dipping sauce and some rice crepes served with Vietnamese pate and irresistibly fragrant fried onion bits.

roasted platter
roasted platter

While P was studying abroad in Paris, he used to eat roast duck at a Chinatown restaurant and would constantly reminisce about it after he returned to the US. This bit of memory drove my appetite for roast duck in Paris. Unfortunately, P’s memory has blurred somewhat, so instead of a defined address, we chose our roasted meat restaurant based on the shininess of the lacquered ducks on displayed, ending up in Restaurant Imperial Choisy. While the roasted meats are Cantonese, the restaurateurs are Teochew (yes, Teochew seems to be the dialect to know in Paris). The roast duck turned out well, with a crisp skin and flavorful meat, but the roast pork was too chewy. Cooked dishes fared better, and we enjoyed a simply steamed bass and a very good rendition of claypot tofu devoid of the brown gunk that mar too many chinatown dishes. 

steamed bass
steamed bass

A couple days later, we wanted to return to Restaurant Imperial Choisy, but due to a wait decided to venture over to the restaurant across the street to Likafo. What a stroke of luck, because the latter was even better. The room, decorated with strips of chinese menu signs (its authentic!) was packed with mostly Chinese diners tucking into a myraid of dishes. We started with a seafood and seaweed soup and was pleasantly surprised to find the fishballs bouncy and not the gummy specimens found in the US. A bowl of steamed tofu was packed with homemade tofu and the vegetables stir fried with fermented beancurd had excellent “wok hei”. The steamed pork patty topped with a huge chunk of salted fish reminded me of a favorite restaurant in Geylang, and we were treated to a delicately steamed flounder, exhorbitant for chinatown standards at 40 euros, but done really really well. Possibly the best steamed fish I’ve ever had outside of Asia. In general, we found the cooking style in Parisian Chinese joints to be lighter than those in US chinatowns and much less dependent on oil and sugar. Once again, the servers spoke a mix of Chinese, Cantonese and Teochew, and my dad felt right at home being called “ah hia” meaning big brother by the middle-aged waiter.  

Japanese - Chinese at Ebis

Japanese - Chinese at Ebis

Ebis was our only non-Chinatown chinese pick, and came highly recommended by WiWi, our friend from Chicago days. She joined us for dinner at this restaurant in the 1st arrondisement, a cross-culture marriage between a Chinese kitchen and a Japanese front-of-house, or a Taiwanese proprietor and his Japanese wife. While lunchtime crowds get to eat ramen, the dinner menu is purely Chinese, with a focus on Sichuan cuisine. Only the green tea ice-cream with azuki beans was Japanese. WiWi had so eloquently described her favorite dish, S15 on the lunch menu, prior to dinner that we had to order it. S15 turned out to be chicken, roasted and then fried with crispy skin and impossibly moist meat. The scallops in black bean and chili sauce were big and fresh tasting in the slightly spicy sauce while the mixed tofu and seafod patty were fried greaselessly to form golden nuggets that spurt savory juices in one’s mouth. Rice at Ebis was excellent, fragrant and not too sticky, and takes the ribbon for “best rice”. That rice was not free. Neither was tea. But that seemed to be modus operandi in Paris. Finally, in Paris, you do not get fortune cookies after mealtime either, but that is no real loss when dinner is good!

Names and Addresses:

Pho Banh Cuon 14 (129 Ave de Choisy)

Restaurant Imperial Choisy (32 Ave de Choisy)

Likafo (39 Ave de Choisy)

Restaurant Ebis (19 rue Saint-Roch)

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Our apartment
Our apartment
For our week in Paris, I opted to rent an apartment in the Marais with the plan to cook in, which of course turned out to be a flight of fancy. Indeed, with so much choices within walking distance, why bother?
The Marais, with its maze of narrow paths that criss-cross at will and barrage of trendy fashion shops remind me of New York’s Soho. Like Soho, the Marais is also home to a mind boggling number of cafes and restaurants, but also markets, epiceries and a dense bakery per square feet count. We briefly sampled the wares from a few restaurants:
Boulangerie Malineau – Situated one block away from my parents’ apartment, this was where we picked up breakfast most days. The baguette was not as good as the bakery right around the corner from my parents’ place, but the baked goods are really good, with a croissant that shatters into salty, buttery bits and a chausson aux poire with a rich and creamy custard complementing the slices of sweet pear.
 
falafel sandwich
falafel sandwich

L’As du Fallafel– In the world of falafel joints, L’As du Fallafel has attained rockstar status, not least because it has the seal of approval from Lenny Kravitz, whose picture is prominently displayed on the wall of the restaurant’s dining room. The falafels have been quoted in press, written in blogs, featured in travel guides and truely thoroughly hyped up. It deserves praise no doubt, the pita warm and fresh, the falafel crisp, the vegetables plentiful and the tahini sauce tangy. The fried eggplant, soft with a little smokiness is my favorite part of the sandwich. The bursting sandwich makes for a fulfilling but messy lunch. Great tasting, but in my opinion, best sandwich in the world may be a little pushing it. Sitting in costs 1.50 more than take out though, so next time I would take it to go and eat at Place des Vosges, saving my money for an after-lunch dessert.

Dinner at Min Chau
Dinner at Min Chau

Min Chau– Manhattan restaurants can be tiny, but Min Chau is even smaller. Imagine a 8 by 20 room packed to the rafters with 20 odd customers and 4 servers, with a small steam table keeping a dozen or so dishes warm and wall space economically utilized, lined with bottles of beer and wine. This literal hole-in-the wall was a block away from my parents’ apartment, and we headed there after picking my parents up from the Eurostar terminal at 9pm. We slid into a really snug table for 4 with barely enough room to even stretch our arms to take off our coats,our knees banging with each others’ under the table. But there is something that makes eating in this crowded room appealing, and it is the unassuming but comforting Vietnamese homestyle cooking, combined with the friendliness of the proprietress and her crew, talking to customers like they are (and probably are) old friends, cajoling them to finish their food. We shared 3 of 4 appetizers and took the proprietress’s recommendations for mains, ending up with a shrimp curry, a chicken ginger stirfry, a tender beef stew and a honeyed pepper pork dish, all saucy and terrific with rice. Best of all was dessert, a banana and coconut soup topped with toasted ground peanuts for a savory twist. As we spoke in Mandarin during dinner, the proprietress took interest in our table and started talking, first in Mandarin, then Cantonese and even more surprisingly Teochew! At the end of the meal, we left Min Chau feeling like we’ve known her and her place for ages.   

Couscous royale
Couscous royale

Couscous stall at le Marche des Enfants Rouge– Couscous was on my list of my things to eat, and wandering into the Marche des Enfants Rouge- a daily covered market with deep historical roots- while trolling the streets of Marais, we saw a stall already brisk in business at 11+ and decided it was time for lunch. We sat on an outdoor table shivering as the platter of couscous royale was served to us, billowing hot steam. It was served in a dish small but deep, and on the couscous were different pieces of meat and vegetables layered precariously at the edge of the dish. One careless move and you find yourself flinging couscous, or even worse, a hunk of lamb, a piece of chicken, mechoui sausage or one of the two lamb meatballs on the table. The couscous was nice and dry, soaking up the tomato-ey and peppery stew while the cuts of meat were fork tender and flavorful. My favorite must be the sausage, spicy and aromatic with cumin. Too bad there was only one and I had to share with P!  

Names and Addresses:
Boulangerie Malineau (18 rue Vielle du Temple)
L’As du Falafel (34 rue de Rosiers)
Min Chau (10 rue de la Verrerie)
le Marche des Enfants Rouge (39 rue de Bretagne)

Having made the trip downtown in a blistery sub-20s weather just to have some hot udon at Honmura An, imagine my dismay to find it shuttered on Sunday afternoon. They don’t serve lunch on Sundays! Argh…
Utterly defeated, I tried feeling better for myself through retail therapy. Did not work. I tried having sweets to lift my flagging spirits, specifically a buttery cherry scone from Balthazar. Did not work. And my fingers nearly got frostbitten while i attempted to eat the scone with an ungloved hand. I needed some soupy comfort quick, and then I realised I wasn’t that far from a bowl of pho in Chinatown.
I find the pho scene in New York not as good compared to other cities with larger Vietnamese communities (pho 75 in Roslyn!) but on such a cold day, a steaming bowl of salty beef broth has great restorative powers no matter where you get it. Lukewarm broth, as some restaurants I’ve been to serve it, is a cardinal sin. Luckily, Pho Tu Do, my purveyor of choice for the day serves strong and very hot beef broth. I gulp done half a bowl quickly, all table manners forgotten until I my face begins to thaw and I start feeling human again. Then I tackle the generous portion of slick rice noodles, thin cuts of raw beef cooked in the boiling broth and chewy, gelatinous tendons. A heap of bean sprouts flash cooked in the broth adds crunch and some sprigs of mint and a squirt of lemon juice invigorates the broth. I can’t finish the noodles but the soup’s all gone by the time I call for the check.
Vietnamese restaurants in New York aren’t largely specialists and Pho Tu Do is no different, serving pages and pages of other cooked food besides pho. This can be both a blessing and a curse, as variety may come at the cost of less focus, but for $4.25, having some pho on a cold winter’s day can’t hurt anyone.

Pho Tu Do
118 Bowery St (Bet. Grand & Hester Sts)

Soho has become my new neighborhood ever since I started working at the Used Book Cafe on saturdays, and it is no wonder I’ve started scouring for things to eat while working the espresso machine for a good 4 hours meant to be tea-time. As comprehensive as the drinks and sweets menu is at the cafe (macaroons and stella artois make a killer combination) , its a little lacking in the savory foods line-up. Luckily, Saigon Bahn Mi is there to the rescue, keeping the hunger away with a warm crusty french bread sandwiching crunchy pickled carrots and refreshingly fresh cilantro, salty vietnamese pastrami and a weird-looking but tasty orange pate that’s supposed to be the “supreme” version of pates.
While reference to it being the best sandwich in town is contentious, it is definitely the most value-for-money sandwich however. A huge hunk of bread, meats and vegetables all for $3, enough to tide me through a 4 hour shift, and even dinner if I manage to stop myself from eating it all at once. So far, it hasn’t happened yet, but the sandwich is really best eaten in whole, so say I…

Bahn Mi So 1
369 Broome St (Bet. Mott & Elizabeth Sts)