When you've lost the address of a barbecue joint, you look for a chugging column of smoke. When you are having trouble picking out Quan Mien Trung from the endless procession of mini-mall restaurants that inhabit its corner of Rosemead, you also follow the smoke — not from smoldering wood but from cigarettes, the blue cloud exhaled by the Vietnamese men who crowd the sidewalk in front, puffing, throwing back shots of the restaurant's ink-black filter coffee. Do they ever wander inside for a snack of noodles with unborn chicken eggs or a bowl of oxtail soup? It's hard to tell — there are usually more people hanging out near the entrance than there are at the tables inside.
This stretch of Valley Boulevard is thick with Saigon-style pho parlors and sparkling banh mi dives, but Quan Mien Trung is more or less an embassy for the cooking of Central Vietnam (or at least the southern part of the region), with a roster of dishes new to those of us who learned about Vietnamese food through noodle shops, and with direct, vivid flavors quite different from the suave preparations you find at restaurants specializing in the cuisine of the old royal city of Hue. When a nonregular sits down, the proprietor approaches the table gingerly, half-afraid that once again, he is going to have to explain why Quan Mien Trung serves no pho bac, no platters of broken rice, no stinky, organy bowls of bun bo Hue. He has the air of a man who has stopped pointing out that the house banh mi is filled with soft, stewed pork and boiled eggs instead of cold cuts, a dude who has tried to explain banh beo chen a few too many times.
If you've ever had banh beo chen yourself, the restaurant's interpretation may surprise you a bit — the rice-batter cakes, usually steamed and served in tiny condiment dishes, are made here in bowls at least three or four times the size, transforming the one-bite nibbles into burger-size disks, sprinkled with powdered, dried shrimp, croutons and scallions, served eight to an order, which slide like oysters down your throat. The region's half-size banh xeo, eggy, bright-yellow, shrimp-studded crepes around a filling of bean sprouts, are as crisp as hard-shelled tacos, ready to be broken up, dipped into fish sauce, and eaten with herbs. Xoi chen are hockey pucks of deep-fried sticky rice stuffed with chopped Chinese mushrooms sautéed with minced meat. There is a wonderful salad of chopped Manila clams with fresh mint, and an unusual interpretation of Hainan chicken rice in which the cooked chicken meat is served as a salad tossed with citrus and leaves of the pungent herb rau ram, a dish that will make Singaporeans as grumpy as it leaves the rest of us delighted.
Bun ca is another one of those preparations that Vietnamese expats crave. The version here seems just about right: soft noodles, a powerful broth tinted scarlet with chile, and a garnish of both fish cakes and slabs of what taste like skipjack, or small tuna, a dish whose fishy funk can be off-putting at first but whose complexity is strangely compelling.
Actually, there is bun bo Hue, or at least bun bo dac biet mien trung, a clean, herbal version of the dish that will satisfy all but the most atavistic urges: a bowl of noodles in clear beef broth flavored with lemongrass and spotted with red chile. Sure, the soup is spiked with chunks of long-simmered pig's foot, if you ask nicely, the cook will add cubes of pig's-blood pudding that have the consistency and richness of freshly made tofu. There are leaves of fresh Vietnamese purple basil to add, and bean sprouts, and shredded cabbage unless you persuade the waiter to bring you shredded banana blossom instead. The noodles are soft, the broth is tart, the heat balanced. Yet the experience of the dish is different from what you may have noticed with the other bun bo in town, lighter somehow, less animal. You will find a lot of other noodle soups on the menu at Quan Mien Trung, including a strong, ketchup-red bun rieu flavored with ground shrimp, and an excellent take on mi quang, thick, yellow noodles with toasted peanuts and slabs of sesame-studded rice cracker in a shallow puddle of broth. But the bun bo is clearly first call.
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QUAN MIEN TRUNG: 8632 Valley Blvd., Rosemead. (626) 573-9903. Open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Noodles, $6; other dishes, $3.50-$7. Recommended dishes: bun bo dac biet mien trung, mi quang, banh xeo, banh mi thit, clam salad.