It is very common for Vietnamese restaurants to be known for one or two specialties, and in some cases that's all they'll serve, like Bun Bo Hue, a place Mai Pham recently wrote about. A couple of weeks ago when I made plans with my dad for dinner and he specifically asked for bun bo Hue, I immediately thought this would be our destination, as we had been before and both really enjoyed it. Instead, he asked me to meet him at "Nam Giao, on Wilcrest, right off of Bellaire, in that empty shopping center."
The shopping center, Nha Trang Plaza, is indeed pretty empty. The large parking lot and expansive storefronts were mostly vacant. The restaurant itself, at around seven on a Sunday evening, had only three tables filled. Nam Giao Restaurant & Bakery, like most Vietnamese restaurants, works off word of mouth, and this is exactly how my dad discovered it. Although, he loves bun bo Hue, he hates the strong primary ingredient mam ruoc — fermented shrimp paste — and a friend directed him to Nam Giao for bun bo Hue just the way he liked it.
At Nam Giao, the bun bo Hue has a much subtler flavor. The funk of the mam ruoc is not as aggressive, leaving the broth to have a more pork-based flavor. The soup was good, but to me it wasn't what stood out. The other specialty of the restaurant is the "cakes" from the Hue region.
When you order the appetizer combo platter ($6.95) you get all three varieties of the house specialty cakes: four each of the banh nam (a flat pork and shrimp rice cake), banh bot loc la (pork and shrimp jelly cake) and banh beo (steamed mini rice pancakes). Accompanying the delicious trifecta is fish sauce and raw slices of chili.
The banh nam and banh bot loc la are both steamed in banana leaves and come to the table piping hot. Because of its flat shape, the banh nam has been playfully referred to as a Vietnamese tamale. The cake itself is a mixture of rice and tapioca flour, and the filling is made of ground pork and shrimp. All that's needed is few spoonfuls of the fish sauce and a few slices of chili. The cake itself is slightly sweet, and the filling is fragrant with pepper and spices. The cake is very thin, so you're not removing it from the banana leaf but rather scraping it up with a spoon.
The banh bot loc is more of a dumpling and is filled with whole shrimp and ground pork. The dumpling is made of just tapioca flour, which leaves the skins translucent and the texture a lot more gelatinous and chewy. The filling is just slightly salty, but it balances the mostly flavorless tapioca of the dumpling. The fish sauce this time is used as a dip.
The banh beo here is served individually, in its own condiment-size bowl. The cake is the same mix of rice and tapioca flour, but since it's not wrapped prior to steaming becomes a little denser. It is topped with minced dried shrimp and garnished with scallions and a small piece of pork rind. A spoon of fish sauce over the top, and the whole cake is ready to be slurped up all at once from its bowl, just as you would an oyster from its shell. All the flavors and textures work together, creating a sweet and savory concoction in your mouth with the crunch from the pork rind an added bonus.
At the end of the meal the friendly server brought complimentary Vietnamese yogurts (da ua) to the table. The tangy and sweet concoction was a perfect end to the meal. Cravings for the special cakes have led me back to Nam Giao a few times since the dinner with my dad for the appetizer platter, but I will be back to try the other traditional Hue dishes.