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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

'Good for the Blood'

June 27, 1996|MAX JACOBSON

Little Saigon has dozens of restaurants specializing in the clear noodle soup pho. Thanh Vi isn't one of them.

This always-crowded cafe is known for the rustic dishes of central Vietnam, especially the fire-engine-red soup bun bo Hue. Say, for the sake of argument, that noodle soup was beef; pho would be a nice charcoal-grilled steak and bun bo Hue would be pit-barbecued ribs. I prefer the funky, intensely flavorful bun bo Hue, but I confess that some people might be startled by the ingredients you find in it (and in quite a few Vietnamese dishes, to tell the truth), like jellied pork blood and chewy beef tendon.

If you find small, out-of-the-way Vietnamese cafes intimidating, relax. Apart from one or two curious glances over the rims of their soup bowls, the only attention you'll get from the locals will be helpful. "Smear the hoisin sauce on first," counsels a waitress as she serves a skewer of meatballs (nem nuong), which you're supposed to roll up in rice paper, burrito-style.

Thanh Vi's menu is short (fewer than 20 items), and most of the dishes are a far cry from the Chinese-influenced fare of northern Vietnam. Central Vietnam is a hilly agricultural region that was home to the imperial Vietnamese dynasty for centuries, and it developed a cuisine of its own. But despite the cuisine's pedigree, meals at this modest cafe are priced for commoners. No dish at Thanh Vi is more than $4.95.

This is your basic six-table cafe, decorated by a single potted floor plant, a large ivy-covered trellis and a stuffed deer head, looking woefully alone above the cash register. You sit on hard-backed gray plastic chairs at plain, slightly worn wooden tables. And if you go for authentic Asian foods, you won't mind a bit.

If you're in an adventurous frame of mind, start with that bun bo Hue. The waitress will ask you pointedly whether you like spicy dishes. And if you say yes, she'll ask again, ever so gently, just to be sure.

What you'll get is a large bowl of spicy broth, ruddy with red pepper flakes, filled with plump wheat noodles, bean sprouts, sliced beef brisket and, of course, the beef tendon and pork blood. Oh, yes, and pinky-sized squiggles of fresh shrimp paste, which give the already complex broth a more penetrating flavor. I've had nearly a dozen interpretations of this soup, and Thanh Vi's is the best, hands down.

When the soup comes to the table, hot and steamy, there will also be the usual Vietnamese complement of fresh herbs: mint, basil, cilantro, various lettuces and trefoil, a purple leaf with an oily, medicinal flavor. You also have the option of adding chile paste, a squeeze of lemon or more bean sprouts.

Probably the second most popular dish at Thanh Vi is mi quang. The noodles, another central Vietnamese specialty, are about the size and thickness of homemade linguine but colored mustard yellow from fresh turmeric in the dough. Don't worry about anything too unfamiliar rearing up from beneath your tangled pile of complex carbos. There's nothing down there but steamed pork, whole shrimp, chopped green onions, bacon and bean sprouts in a rich shrimp and pork gravy.

The restaurant's only deep-fried dish is the filling crepe banh xeo (pronounced bahn say-o), made from a rice flour batter that contains minced pork and dried shrimp. Banh xeo is not my favorite Vietnamese dish, but I will say this: Thanh Vi's version is not as oily as it looks. Beneath the crepe lurks a pile of cooked bean sprouts.

Nem nuong are spongy beef meatballs grilled on a wooden skewer, to be wrapped in a diaphanous rice paper and seasoned with hoisin sauce and fresh herbs. Any combination of sauces and vegetables you can dream up will probably work well with this dish.

There's one more dish not to miss, but you won't find it on the menu: Canh bun is mentioned only on a banner on the wall. The stars of this soup are fluffy crab and shrimp dumplings bound with flour and egg. Fresh crab, tofu and the vegetable Vietnamese call rau muong, a type of water celery, are tossed in at the last minute. This is a great lunch soup, light and delicious.

Simpler still is hu tieu ga ca, a humble chicken broth delicately laden with shredded chicken and sliced fish. A Vietnamese cardiologist, seated at the next table, told me the dish was "good for the blood." When I asked him about bun bo Hue, he smiled and silently returned to his soup.

For dessert, try lotus seed or sweet longan, floating in sugary, gelatinous liquids. Ca phe sua nong is Vietnamese-style iced coffee, a jazzy combo of java, condensed milk and crushed ice.

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Where to Go

Thanh Vi, 9609 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; (714) 531-0285. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Cash only. Parking in lot. Takeout. Dinner for two, $10-15.

What to Get

Bun bo Hue, mi quang, canh bun, hu tieu ga ca.

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