>> Ngu Binh Restaurant | Eat the World Los Angeles

Thursday 12 December 2019

Ngu Binh Restaurant


EDITOR'S NOTE: An updated version of this article (22 December 2023) is available as part of the Historical section of our Substack page. Check that out here:
Have you ever been able to park close to your destination shop when pulling into the parking lot of Magnolia Plaza? It is already clear that places like Ngu Binh are going to require some obligatory waiting times, but the hunger only builds as you determine whether that slow moving minivan is trying to get in or out of a spot. It is going to happen anyways so just give up, head to the opposite end, and walk back.

Plenty of other storefronts will also call for your attention with banh mi offerings, seafood feasts, and markets with pastries and fresh tropical fruits, but keep your head down and get your name on the list. Ngu Binh has some of the best offerings from Hue, the main city in Central Vietnam, in all of the metropolitan area.

Ngu Binh is possibly most well-known for their rendition of the ultimate Central Vietnamese bowl of bun bo hue (below), which is undeniably excellent. It arrives at the table with a slick of bright red chili oil on top, almost as if there was a knife accident in the kitchen. Everything about the bowl is almost perfect, including the fresh greens and banana flowers that accompany it.

The cuts of meat are all fresh and tender and the broth is a revelation. The complexity of tastes bombard your tongue from every angle. The long tubular rice noodles are always cooked just right, it is astounding that there has seemingly never been an off day. Ngu Binh is not the type of place that you need to tinker with the table condiments to improve your bowl.

You know it never gets super cold in Hue, but there is something of a shared mild winter going on. It dips a bit colder here in Orange County, and that is only more reason to enjoy these thick and chewy round rice noodles in a deeply warming broth. Pork still on the bone is joined by pork meatballs and cubes of blood, as well as beef shank that is magically tender.

The most recent visit to Ngu Binh was ultimately not about bun bo hue though and rather demolishing a tray of banh beo chen ($8.75, above and below), steamed rice cakes served on ten individual small plates. Like almost everything on the menu, banh beo is a specialty of Hue. This one originated in street stalls, its compact nature great for ordering many one by one over a period of time while you chat with other customers and the proprietor.

Each little plate, since prepared by a human, has a bit of variance. Some have a bit more dried shrimp and its associated brine, some a bit more crunch from the shrimp chip or spice from chopped green onions. The steamed rice cake itself would slip down your throat as easy as a water slide if it was on its own, especially with a healthy spoon of nuoc cham as is customary for each bite.

Banh beo is a delight, it is hard to describe it any other way. It is available as one plate as well for the same price, but ordering it this way is a better connection to the roots of the dish, and somehow much more fun.

Continuing to ride the train of rice in other forms, the mysterious bรกnh รญt kแบนp bรกnh ram ($9.75, below) was ordered for the first time. If there is no other warning given, the best thing to keep in mind might be to attack this with at least a group of four so that no one needs to eat more than one portion.

If you do proceed, order it first because it requires a lead time of 15 or 20 minutes. This might not seem like much, but other dishes will start arriving almost immediately since their menu is so focused and most everything just needs to be combined or cooked lightly.

The glutinous rice is overwhelming, one portion steamed on top while another remains hidden inside of the fried portion (and very hot!). The crisp texture and the very minimal amounts of shrimp and pork within the balls are just not enough to compete with the rice, so the undertaking is real. Again you can douse it with ample amounts of nuoc cham.

At a table with only one other, it was sad to say that quite a bit of this dish went to waste, as each felt like eating an entire bowl of rice condensed into something the size of a tangerine. On this day, faces were not saved.

This was not the case on the trip that took in a bowl of the delicious mi quang dac biet ($9.75, below), what initially appears to be a heaping mound of noodles but has so much else lurking underneath. It's meat cuts are just as good as in the bun bo hue, but this time include fall off the bone pork, fish cakes, and U6 shrimp.

The salad underneath is full of more banana flowers, lettuce, and mint, but do know that there is a nice broth down there as well, so give it all a nice mix before taking the first bite. The sweetness from peanuts, crispiness of the cracker, and chewy noodles all combine with the fresh greens to create unimaginably interesting combinations.

Even the drinks at Ngu Binh do not disappoint. The orange juice is as fresh as can be and the coffees are always quite satisfying whether served hot or iced.

14092 Magnolia Street

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