Sunday, June 01, 2008

Tan Tan

Tan Tan is a huge Vietnamese / Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The space is huge. The menu is huge. The crowd is huge. And with good reason.

Tan Tan is fun and welcoming. The cavernous space is decorated with garish neon lighting, flat-screen TVs showing different dishes, giant landscape pictures with moving waterfalls, and fish tanks filled with fish, lobster, and crabs.

Tan Tan's menu is also fun and welcoming with bright colors and photos of dishes. It is as fascinating as it is long.

House Special Rice Cake
I have never had anything quite like this dish. It consists of rectangular blocks of finely processed, gelatinous rice cake that have been pan fried and then placed inside an egg omelet and covered with cooked garlic and green onions. The dish is a play of textures. The crunchy consistency of the rice cake exterior contrasts with the spongy interior and the spongy egg.

Chargrilled Pork, Chicken and Egg Cake with Crushed Rice

Tan Tan serves very good char-grilled meats with crushed rice and fish sauce. The pork and chicken have that uniquely Vietnamese marinade (garlic, fish sauce, sugar, and lemon grass) that gives the meat a funky, caramelized flavor. It is because of this marinade that Vietnamese meats may be my favorite barbecue of any world cuisine.

The meats are served with an egg cake -- an unusual, spongy omelet-like dish made with egg and cellophane noodles. The dish is rounded off with crushed rice and a sauce of lime, sugar, water, and fish sauce.

Simmered Fish in Clay Pot
This funky, sweet dish has a complex flavor that comes from caramelizing sugar at high temperature, and then adding fish sauce and garlic. The thick, unusual sauce surrounds the delicate fish, which is served very hot.

Although I like Tan Tan's version of this dish, the sauce is a little too sweet for me. I slightly prefer the version at The Vietnam Restaurant.

Pan Fried Noodles

This dish is remarkable for its texture. The egg noodle comes in a perfectly round nest. Around the outside of the next, the noodles are crispy and dry. But where the hot meat, vegetables, and sauce are poured over the middle of the noodles, the noodles become soft, moist, and rubbery.

Tan Tan serves many different toppings on the noodles. I ordered a "Sate Three Flavors," which includes good-quality shrimp, scallop, and scallops. The "sate" sauce is a Vietnamese sauce, not to be confused with Indonesian satay. It is a mildly-flavored brown sauce that is not very exciting. But then again, the reason to get this dish is the spectacular noodles.

Family and Cheap Spectacle

I have tried Tan Tan twice by myself and then once with my daughter. Going solo misses the point. Tan Tan is full of large Asian families and groups. A Vietnamese friend tells me the best dishes at Tan Tan are the family-sized hot pots. I have never brought enough people to order it.

My daughter thought Tan Tan was lots of fun. She wanted to know how the water in the photos of waterfalls was moving. (I don't know.) She pointed at the fake coconut tree with stuffed monkeys on top. She squealed with delight when a waiter fished a wiggling lobster from the tank.

Tan Tan's decor may be cheap spectacle. But it also serves some spectacular, cheap food.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to check this place out. Everyone at the nail salon I go to (in Crosby, no less), went on and on about how Tan Tan was hands down the best Vietnamese restaurant in Houston.

I haven't seen egg cake in Houston. Had it a lot in San Diego. Maybe I'm not going to the right places.

tram said...

I love the bot chien! My family gets it every time we go to Tan Tan.

When you say cooked garlic, are you referring to the little light brown cubes? Those are actually pickled radishes.

We also always get the Hu Tieu Ap Chao, which are pan friend flat rice noodles. I guess the most similar thing would be Thai Pad See Ew.

neverfull said...

i'll return and get the hot pot with you. the broth is flavorful and delicious. i love that rice cake too!

have you been to jackie tan yet? it's the new place further west on bellaire that the tan tan people opened. robb walsh reviewed it in april:
http://www.houstonpress.com/2008-04-10/dining/jackie-tan-thinks-big/full

anonymouseater said...

tram -- thanks. I had no idea that those were radishes. That is interesting. I love pan fried flat rice noodles and will have to try those.

neverfull -- It's a deal. I have not been to Jackie tan yet. I'm interested.

Anonymous said...

I really would like to go back to Tan Tan again. I used to be a regular "after midnight" customer but about 8 years I got really sick after eating some pho with rare beef one night. I knew the beef was slightly off but in my state of inebriation I ate it anyway. Nuff' said! Still everyone raves about this place so I should get over my own stupidity and one bad night when the meat had been left out a little too long and give it another go...