4134 University Avenue, City Heights
Back in the summer of 2005, I noticed an intimidating-looking restaurant in a generic strip mall at the corner of University and Marlborough Avenues in City Heights. Partially hidden by a Burger King, the black iron steel bars and doors and windows added to the forbidding presentation. After asking around, I learned only that this “wasn’t a pho restaurant.”
Inside, I found a dark interior decorated in pastels and dated tables and chairs: the place looked like it belonged in the 1980s. The menu entrées were varied, however, with dishes not seen in San Diego in those days — wild game, various goi (salads) — and an entire section of the menu was in Vietnamese. The food seemed a mixed bag, one good dish offset by another mediocre offering. After a couple of visits, we tucked Que Huong away in our memory.
Three years later, we’d just returned from Hanoi, Sapa, and Bac Ha, and I was chatting with my good friends Kim and Quan when, for some reason, Que Huong came up. They told me about several changes to the menu, especially the addition of a “must try.”
I’ve been a regular customer ever since, and it’s been rewarding to see Que Huong evolve. Experience with the large and unwieldy menu has left me with several dishes to fall back on.
The best way to enjoy Que Huong is to make use of the “lazy susan” with friends. This I did recently with a group of San Diego food bloggers — Carol, Dennis, and Cathy — to celebrate a visit by Sawyer, one of our former colleagues. I was given the honor of ordering.
There are a couple of salads here that I enjoy, but the one that usually gets my vote is the jackfruit salad. The jackfruit is canned, but as my friend Candice puts it, “It really has the texture of artichoke hearts.” There’s pork and shrimp and a refreshing dressing hidden under a bánh tráng nướng (sesame-rice cracker).
The one item I always order at Que Huong: the fish-sauce chicken wings. This is the dish Kim and Quan recommended. Jay, one of the owners, says they go through about a thousand pounds of wings a month, so I’m guessing it’s the most popular item on the menu. The sweet, salty, sticky, crunchy, faintly tangy, and mildly spicy wings hit on all cylinders, but you’ve got to eat them on the spot. The wings are on the small side, increasing the skin-to-meat ratio. I’ve had the Andy Ricker’s renowned fish-sauce chicken wings at Pok Pok in Portland, but I prefer these. The tamarind wings are too sweet-sour for my taste, but they’re still a strong second-place dish.
There’s quite a bit of exotic meat on the menu. Stay away from crocodile, though I’ve had several decent versions of quail and frog legs. On the occasion of Sawyer’s visit, our group went with minced wild boar, sautéed with chilies, green and red peppers, and lemongrass, mildly spicy and full of flavor. They dress the dish with ngò om (also known as the “rice-paddy herb”), adding a sour, cumin taste.
(On occasion, the menu has included wild boar wrapped in betel leaf, with rice paper, herbs, and greens to make your own rolls. I found the inclusion of diếp cá, also known as fishwort, enhances the dish with a tangy, sour-fish flavor.)
Next up was the ốc len xào dừa, periwinkles braised in coconut milk. If there’s a single dish that illustrates Que Huong’s evolution, this is it. At first taste, I found it bland and uninteresting, but several years and cooks later, it’s now something I enjoy, though I could do without the ốc. Learning how to suck the little buggers out of their shell can be fun, but the best part is the smooth, tasty coconut milk–based broth; I usually ask them to make it a spicier. Rau ram, Vietnamese coriander, adds a touch of spicy-citrus-coriander flavor.
The bubbling catfish claypot presents a dilemma. I’m not a big fan of muddy flavored catfish. However, I do love the sweet, salty sauce and the pieces of pork belly that line the small pot.
We finished up with cha ca thang long. The version Que Huong serves is different from the iconic dish I’ve had in Hanoi — different also from what’s served by Viendong and Ha Noi restaurants in Garden Grove and Westminster. In Hanoi restaurants, such as the legendary Cha Ca La Vong, snakehead (aka “Frankenfish”) is used in addition to a ton of oil. Here, it’s snapper: milder, a bit drier, but also less oily. The dish contains two ingredients rarely associated with Vietnamese cuisine: dill and turmeric. The fermented-fish dipping sauce, mam nem, is fortified with sweet tones and totally legit. Served with a boatload of greens, herbs, and bun (rice vermicelli), this could feed a couple of folks on its own. In our case, it wiped out the possibility that anyone in the group would leave hungry.
A few weeks after meeting up with my friends, I dropped by for a solo meal. I was after those chicken wings. Jay welcomed me. His mom was in the kitchen, he said, and she had a simple but refreshing roast chicken with rau ram salad. Over the years, I’ve come to trust Jay’s recommendations; besides, you can’t turn down Mom.
The dish was exactly as described, a nice salad of roast chicken seasoned with generous amounts of black pepper, rau ram (adding an herbaceous note), and onions for bite. The solo experience gave me time to take in some of my fellow diners, a group of men enjoying food and beer and chatting; a large family huddled over a hot pot; and a couple happily munching on wings. I watched as workers stacked trays on one of the tables — I hear they do some pretty serious catering these days. Que Huong may not be the most stylish restaurant, but the food has improved over the years and it shows.