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Night of the Broken Rice at Com Tam Thuan Kieu

Com Tam Thuan Kieu
Com Tam Thuan Kieu
Flickr/Cathy Danh

Com tam is pure Vietnamese soul food, jagged shards of rice broken in the threshing process, repurposed as lunch -- com tam with a bit of scallion oil is among the cheapest and most delicious things you could eat. As with such former poverty staples as quinoa or chestnut flour, com tam acquired a certain peasanty cachet -- by the time it made it to California a couple of decades ago, it was more expensive than the best jasmine rice (it was actually broken on purpose, some said), and it quickly became a fixture on Vietnamese menus here. When properly cooked, its texture becomes less like rice than a kind of fluffy, chewy couscous, brilliant at absorbing flavors from dribbles of fish sauce and random splashes of oil.

Com Tam Thuan Kieu is still the standard in local com tam joints, rushed, brightly lit dining rooms powered by iced coffee and coconut juice. The menu looks endless and confusing, but basically features com tam (or the noodle mats called bánh hòi) with various combinations of happy proteins: shredded pork skin, bright-orange Vietnamese quiche, spring rolls, grilled pork, grilled beef, meatballs, Chinese sausages, rice with shredded pork, grilled shrimp, roast hen, grilled shrimp cake wrapped around lengths of sugarcane, and probably a few others I'm forgetting about at the moment. If you're particularly hungry, or don't feel like choosing, you can get a plate with 10 meats, a psychedelic pinwheel of Vietnamese animal underneath which the broken rice can scarcely be seen.

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Com Tam Thuan Kieu

120 E. Valley Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776-3500

626-280-5660