Thumbs up to Huynh's broken rice with pork three ways. Photo by Candice Woo.
Huynh Hoa Tuu4660 El Cajon Blvd.City Heights619-280-4999
There were only three of us at the table, but I'm pretty sure we ate for six. Actually, I'm positive we did, because after we'd ordered food, our server asked us to move from a four-top to a six-top so we'd have enough room for all the plates that would be coming. This is not the first, or third, time I've been asked this in recent weeks.
But it's hard not to go overboard when you're presented with a menu more than 100 items long, because when you're eating with people whose appetites for new and exciting tastes matches your own, it's easy to get a little carried away.
This food extravaganza was during my latest meal at Huynh Hoa Tuu—my first feast there was in January, with my monthly dinner club of kindred eaters. On that trip, the friend who suggested the place helped us order the dishes he'd liked best so far, some of which I've kept reordering with other friends while I've explored the rest of the menu—the foodie equivalent of paying it forward.
Funny enough, though, the dish I love best we didn't actually order—it came to the table as a result of miscommunication—but we kept it because it looked good. Curried frog logs might not sound great, but, truly, their accidental delivery was a delicious mistake, the very best kind.
Frog legs, some sections so meaty they looked like chicken drumettes, were swimming in a complex, lemongrass-scented curry, jumbled with translucent mung bean noodles, whole okra and meltingly tender eggplant, all of which soaked up the flavorful sauce. The dish was topped with chopped peanuts and herbs, so tasty that I every time I order it, I want to finish the plate, but I hold back just so I'll have enough for lunch the next day.
True to the regional cuisine of Southern Vietnam, many dishes here are on the sweeter side, like the above-mentioned curry that's rich with coconut milk and spicy from chilies or clay-pot-braised meats in a deeply caramelized glaze of fish sauce and sugar.
There's lots of seafood on the menu, too, including a good sweet-and-sour shrimp soup that gets sweetness from sliced pineapple and its piquant taste from a tamarind-flavored broth. But the must-eat at Huynh Hoa Tuu is the grilled squid. Lengths of squid are cross hatched for looks and also so they'll cook faster, resulting in the most sublimely tender and buttery-sweet squid to pass these lips. Ruddy from a chili marinade, they're flash-grilled, heaped in a bowl and topped with sprigs of leafy rau ram, a Vietnamese herb that's a little like cilantro. Served traditionally with a side dish of chopped chilies, salt and a wedge of lime to make into a dipping paste, I think the squid is perfectly seasoned on its own, though a squeeze of citrus couldn't hurt.
For lunch, there are Northern staples, like pho, but you'd be better served by going to pho-only shop if that's what you seek. A nicer choice is one of the broken rice dishes; my favorite is the combo with pork done three ways—a barbecued pork chop, garlicky shredded pork and a savory cake made of steamed egg, pork and mushrooms.
The restaurant is owned by the Huynh family. Oldest son Hung takes care of the dining room while his younger sister, brother-in-law and younger brother run the kitchen. The family's owned three restaurants in Vietnam, but this is their first in San Diego. It's not hard to find—just head about a mile east of the I-15 and look for the tallest building on the strip, the one that's topped with a pagoda-style roof.
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