>> 5 Stars Huế | Eat the World Los Angeles

Friday, 16 October 2020

5 Stars Huế

Alhambra location with outdoor dining patio.

[COVID-19 UPDATE: The Alhambra branch is open for outdoor patio dining, while El Monte and Diamond Bar are takeout/pickup and delivery only. Duarte is temporarily closed.]

While there is certainly no lack of Vietnamese food in the San Gabriel Valley, often it stays in the shadow of more ambitious and established places in Orange County who have long expanded the boundaries of the cuisine in Southern California. 5 Stars Hue, originally opened in El Monte during June 2019 but recently expanding to three other locations, is triumphantly ignoring these standards.

As you can guess from the name of the budding franchise, the food here is that of the central Vietnamese city of Hue. This former capital of the country is well-known for its food's links to a royal past, making sure portions are smaller in some cases so that a wider variety can be eaten, and of course all with a beauty of presentation.

Full takeout order from (the original) El Monte location.

This is evident even in takeout orders as seen above, each dish and complement of sides is packed and protected in important ways to make sure the food stays fresh and keeps its beauty. Especially in 2020, this makes for an important step.

Of course the food, like any other, is best when eaten straight from the kitchen. For now, this is only available at the Alhambra branch which opened late last year. There, you can get the combination appetizer platter known as thap cam ($8.50, below), which includes six sampler items that can also be ordered individually.

On the right of the plate above is banh nam la, a thin rectangular dumpling distinct to Hue and not seen in so many places around town. This hints of both ground pork and shrimp, pressed firmly inside the rice cake (banh) wrapper. Like its other friends on the plate, it begs to be dipped in the sweetened fish sauce.

The platter is also the perfect way to taste test banh ram it (below), a steamed dumpling that can sometimes be overwhelming with the quantity and density of glutinous rice. Here it is layered over a hollow, crunchy shell and is much easier to get down, as well as being delicious.

Another component of the platter, but also ordered on its own during an earlier meal is the banh beo ($8.50, below), one of Hue's most famous dishes. These are a set of steamed rice cakes, sometimes served individually, that are topped with shredded shrimp, chives, and crispy fried pork skins. Each disc has slightly different edges and bumps, alluding to its handmade nature.

The El Monte takeout order also came with the surprise bonus you see in the upper left of the photo, a rectangular block of cha tom. This is a dense shrimp and pork sausage or meatball that can be in many forms.

Take advantage of other very rare menu items like nem lui ($12.95, below), grilled skewers of pork shoulder served with an entire bushel of greens and rice paper to wrap everything together. It comes with a side of sweet peanut dipping sauce, but can just as easily be eaten on its own as it is full of flavor and many textures once you have a wrap made.

The taste of the grilled meat is almost enough to transport you right back to the streets of Hue at night, as you cut through the smoke of roadside stalls and order midnight snacks. There you will find the garlic-heavy pork on lemongrass skewers, but here in Southern California this might make the price point rise too high for some and simple wooden ones are substituted.

Other Hue specialties are all done well, including the amazing bun bo hue ($9.95, above), which seems full of the love from the hands that made it. Eating the two pork meatballs that float to the surface of the broth might be the best thing you do in all of 2020. Besides a strong aroma of lemongrass, there must be 100 flavors emanating from this bowl.

The mi quang ($9.50, below) is serviceable, if not on par with some of the better versions in Orange County. No matter, it is far from disappointing and still done lovingly.

An order of still-wrapped cha hue ($5.50).

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