>> Mai Phung | Eat the World Los Angeles

Thursday 3 December 2020

Mai Phung

EDITOR'S NOTE: An updated version of this article (01 March 2024) is available as part of the Historical section of our Substack page. Check that out here:

Mai Phung's menu has plenty of noodle dishes and noodle soups to choose from, all of which finally bumped up a dollar to $10 a couple years back. But what it has become somewhat known for over the years is their very pleasing bowl of banh canh cua, a soup that stars crab in thick broth with big, slippery round tapioca noodles. In fact crab is the star of quite a few dishes here, and is always satisfying.

In better times this small cafe in the long Westminster Plaza shopping center was constantly buzzing with diners coming in for quick bowls. In fact a couple recent visits were not that less busy than usual, with what appeared to be an at-risk crowd, but thankfully a couple outdoor tables presented a better setting even in direct sunlight.
An order of phan cha gio ($15, above) stands out from many because of the use of crab meat along with the more usual pork. Five egg rolls are cut in half and served with a heaping tray of very fresh and crisp vegetables and herbs, as well as a dunking bowl of nuoc mam that you could almost swim in.
It is always somewhat concerning how fast a plate of them can arrive after ordering, but they are consistently fried just right and still very crisp and hot. The addition of crab gives the rolls an extra layer of flavor, so the extra crisp skins do not take over the experience. Their house made iced tea is only $1 and perfect at all times of the meal to wash anything down.
If the bright orange bowl of banh canh tom cua thit heo ($10, above) is the reason you are here, the soup at the top of the menu is not going to disappoint. Its thick, starchy broth is heavier than most Vietnamese soups and full of crab (cua) flavor. Their version also includes shrimp (tom) and pork belly (thit heo), creating a well-rounded bowl of proteins.
Besides these meats, it is a pleasure to enjoy the thick tapioca noodles once you can successfully get them into your mouth. These long and heavy noodles are slippery as noted and try to wiggle off both your chopsticks and spoon. If you are sitting at a banh canh vendor in Vietnam, you may see a mother whip out a pair of scissors brought from home to cut her children's noodles into more manageable lengths.
For $10, the crab, shrimp, and pork belly are all of excellent quality and one wonders if the prices will stay as long as they did now as they did when things were $9. Even the big shiitake mushroom in each bowl tastes great. If you are in the mood for a lighter soup still with crab, try their bun rieu which seems to be almost as popular.
Proving they are never stingy with either the crab or fresh shrimp, an order of hu tieu kho tom cua thit ($10, below) is another winner. This dish is served dry with a bowl of simple broth served next to it, ready to make your noodles as wet as desired.

On past visits for crabby noodle dishes, it was always noticed that besides banh canh and bun rieu, bun thit nuong was also advertised by letters stuck to the window. Recently a quick lunch was finally enjoyed to remedy the fact that this had never been sampled here. You can get their bun with grilled pork as advertised, or with their delicious crab-filled cha gio, or a combination of the two with bun thit nuong cha gio ($10, below).
The vermicelli noodles sit as always on a base of fresh greens and bean sprouts, while on top three halves of egg rolls are joined by thin cuts of grilled pork. They also add small pieces of what appears to be fried ground pork patties, an excellent new team member.

There is almost enough cha gio to make an extra order of them not necessary when dining alone. A healthy portion of nuoc mam is again ready to dive in, combining with the sweetness of peanuts to make every bite pop with joy.
Other purveyors of bun might be more well-known, but the addition of crab in these expertly fried rolls and ground pork patties puts this into the conversation just the same. Well worth an order.

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