A man named Luu, whose family owns Kim Long, told me that the family, and the style of food, comes from Saigon. District 5, to be specific. Some of the more obscure dishes on the menu are from this part of Vietnam’s largest city, such as the banh cuon nong special served only on weekends. This dish resembles a plate of rolled crepes, arranged side-by-side, sliced crosswise and beautifully garnished with cucumber slices and other vegetables. The crepe shell, made of rice flour, is soft yet sturdy and filled with mushroom slivers, ground pork and jicama with a bowl of fish sauce on the side. The name “banh cuon nong” apparently translates into “special steam rice flour with special fillings”; it comes via Luu’s neighbor in District 5, who used to sell it out of her house.
Of all the obscure, rice flour-based dishes at Kim Long, my favorite was easily the bot chien trung, “Fried Flour Cake with Egg, Green Onion,” which is as crispy as the prior examples are gooey. These cakes are cube shaped chunks of inch-thick rice pancake, pan-fried and crispy on the outside.
“They have jicama in Vietnam?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Without jicama it doesn’t taste right.”
Another unusual, gelatinous and dare I say “Asian” offering is the appetizer called “bloating fern-shaped cake with grinded pork and shrimp.” It comes delivered in 10 pieces on 10 separate plates, each the size of a soft taco. Every gelatinous cake is topped with a mixture of shrimp, pork and both green and fried onions, while the bottom sticks to the plate like a suction cup and must be pried off like an oyster from its shell.
These crispy squares, luxuriously thick, supple and chewy on the inside, are tossed with scrambled egg and scallions and served with a dark, soy-based dipping sauce. It was so comforting a dish that eating it made me feel like I was nursing a hangover.
The kitchen’s devotion to that most comforting of Vietnamese comfort foods, pho—and other similarly constructed, but non-beef, vermicelli soups—is deep, so much so that the accompanying side salads vary, bowl by bowl. All of the soup salads are built upon a base of sprouts, lime, jalapeños and cilantro. The salad that comes with the bún bò hue, a pho-like beef lemongrass soup with round, al-dente noodles, contains thin-sliced cabbage as well. The seafood noodle soup, which is laced with sesame oil, has bitter escarole in its salad, and the bún riêu dac biet, a tofu and tomato soup in which balls of minced pork and crab float, has lettuce in the side salad.
After my mother-in-law, a conservative eater, ordered bún rieu dac biet, I whispered a warning: “You just ordered the craziest thing on the menu.” I was shocked at how much she ended up liking it. The taste of the broth is hard to place and seems to be swirling with many flavors at once, including some things that might not even be in there, like crab shell and fried cheese.
The pho is on the fragrant side with a basil-heavy salad. The tendon, on which I always keep tabs, comes in diverse form with some pieces just on the chewy side of melting, others on the chewy side of crunchy. The tripe squeaks faintly when you chew it. The flank is spongy and nearly threadbare.
The Kim Long rice noodle served with dried satay chilli is a delicious variation of pho in which raw tomatoes and cucumber slices float in the red chile broth among the beef slices. In all, serious connoisseurs of Vietnamese soup will find their interest held over multiple visits to Kim Long.
For a time, soon after Kim Long opened, there was a rumored chicken option that was not on the menu, but sometimes available to those who asked. “My brother-in-law had a little farm, and he raised his own chickens,” Luu explained. It was a variety of chicken that’s very popular among, as he called them, “the Orientals,” who love this kind of chicken.
Despite their superior quality, the economics of raising chickens for the restaurant didn’t work out, especially, I surmise, with so many “Orientals” bidding up the price. Nonetheless, I ordered the seasoned chicken broken rice plate and tried to use my imagination.
The seasoned chicken, cut in pieces and served aside a molded cube of steamed broken rice, was refreshingly simple. It was seasoned with black pepper, scallion and browned onion, and came with a clear chicken consommé on the side. Another simple, satisfying broken rice dish is the cubed steak, sweetened, blackened and impossibly tender, with onion, pepper and mushroom in a dark sauce.
While the cubes of beef and cubes of broken rice were elegant and tasty, my favorite cube of all remains the bot chien trung, aka the fried flour cake with egg and green onion. And it turns out, upon inspection of Kim Long’s web page, that dish is actually “a multiple generation Chinese delicacy which is only available at Kim Long Asian Cuisine.”
This dish, I realized, was the answer to my question about labeling a Saigon-style Vietnamese restaurant as “Asian Cuisine.” I subsequently learned that Saigon’s District 5, where Luu and his neighbor come from, is known to be a heavily Chinese part of town.
And if that doesn’t prove that Kim Long indeed qualifies as Asian cuisine, the fortune cookie that came with one of my meals drove the point all the way home.
“A good way to stay healthy is to eat more Chinese food.”