Photos courtesy of Andrew Ahn and Celine Chien
Just off 101, nestled between the IKEA and the Home Depot, is the oldest Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Northern California. At 12:30 p.m. every Sunday, after the temple’s morning services, both attendees and other members of the local community flock to Chùa Giác Minh for their vast selection of traditional and affordable Vietnamese cuisine. Since many Buddhists follow a plant-based diet, all the food at Giác Minh is vegan, but the three regular meat eaters in our group thought this didn’t diminish the quality of the food at all.
Walking into the parking lot of Giác Minh, the first thing that caught our eye was the expansive red staircase leading up to the entrance of the gold tile roofed temple, but we headed over to the smaller entrance on the left of the temple to get our food first. We were immediately greeted by volunteers on our left who served us free rice and veggies. We then purchased additional food and sugarcane juice from the large assortment displayed across three tables.
The food was all served in takeout containers, but we ate at the temple. The dining area consisted of a couple dozen tables spread out across two covered outdoor areas filled with plants and statues, and the constant hum of conversation hid the fact that we were right next to the freeway.
We were initially worried about intruding since we hadn’t attended the services, but the volunteers were all extremely friendly and welcoming. Several of them only spoke Vietnamese, but luckily our friend Minh was able to translate for us.
Free Rice and Veggies (9/10):
Given that this was free and looked like just rice and veggies, we didn’t have particularly high hopes for this dish. We were very wrong. While the jasmine rice tasted pretty ordinary, the tofu, eggplant, bok choy, and cauliflower that accompanied it were packed with so much flavor that we would have been happy just eating the free food. The tofu absorbed all the rich flavors of the perfectly cooked eggplant—which wasn’t hurriedly undercooked as eggplant often is. The bok choy was also perfectly prepared—it still had the delightful juicy crunchiness that is often lost when bok choy is overcooked, but wasn’t too crunchy as to seem undercooked. Sarah added, “The cauliflower is delectable.”
The Bao was everyone’s favorite, and was so good that despite the dozen or so items we had already ordered, we returned to get more, so everyone could have seconds. The dough that encased a savory, almost meaty, filling of carrots, wood ear mushrooms, and other vegetables was incredibly fluffy and slightly sweet.
Cơm Cháy (Crispy Rice) (10/10):
The crispy rice was reminiscent of a deconstructed rice cake, but was crunchier and packed with umami. Each bite was different, with varying levels of sweetness, saltiness, and a little bit—but definitely not too much—of spice from the chili flakes. The rice was accompanied by dried tofu flakes which didn’t add much flavor but complemented the crunchy texture of the rice nicely. Sarah commented, “It almost tastes like kettle corn, in a really good way. It’s not too salty and there’s a very low-key sweetness.”
Nước Mía (Sugar Cane Juice) (9/10):
After ordering the sugarcane juice, we watched one of the volunteers feed the sugarcane and a couple of kumquats into a juicer to make our drink. The juice was incredibly sweet, something that I would have normally found off-putting, but was a nice contrast to the saltiness of the food we ordered. It also had a slightly sour, almost orangey, flavor from the kumquats that made the drink more interesting, but wasn’t overpowering. Sarah said, “The sugarcane water is refreshing and fulfilling. It’s packed with flavor. It’s very unique; I haven’t ever tasted a drink like it. It’s like a refreshing kind of sugary.”
Bánh Gai (Thornleaf Cake) (7/10):
This dish was probably the most unique and unfamiliar to me. A slightly sweet and nutty mung bean paste was encased in a sticky almost mochi-esque green exterior coated in sesame seeds, which was in-turn wrapped in banana leaf. Minh told us that there were more sesame seeds than is typical for this dish, but thought they added a nice extra texture and nuttiness. The banana leaf not only made this more fun to eat (one of the volunteers checked in on Minh to make sure he could figure out how to eat it) but also infused an interesting scent and flavor into the part of the dish we were actually eating.
Gà Chiên Chay (Tofu Fried Chicken) (8/10):
The tofu used for this dish tasted freshly made, not at all like the store bought tofu I’m used to eating. It was somehow simultaneously more firm yet also more juicy. The lemongrass used to imitate a chicken bone didn’t function as such and easily fell out, but was nonetheless clever and added a nice lemony flavor to the tofu. The tofu also contained glass noodles and elephant ear mushrooms sprinkled throughout, which seemed odd at first, but added a compelling texture. The tofu was coated with a crispy layer of what seemed like tofu skin which rounded the dish off nicely. Celine said, “The inside is tofu and vermicelli noodles so it’s softer and chewier and then the outside is crispy.”
Bánh Cam (Sesame balls) (8/10):
The sesame balls were slightly oily—in a good way—and had the perfect amount of chewiness. The mung bean filling was a bit sweet and nutty. Since this dish is more common, it didn’t stand out as much as the others, but was still very good, and we would definitely recommend it.
Rice Noodles and Tofu Giò (7/10):
The noodles, which we dipped into the accompanying sauce after struggling to find chopsticks, were chewy and soft—perfectly cooked. The sauce had a nice sweet and savory flavor reminiscent of fish sauce. The tofu, made to mimic giò (or chả lụa), a type of sausage, had a texture similar to the tofu lemongrass drumsticks, but contained peppercorns instead of glass noodles and elephant ears. I usually find peppercorns to be overpowering, but in this case, they accompanied the simplicity of the slightly lemony tofu nicely. Celine said, “This is really good because it’s chewy and carries the sauce really well. The sauce is kind of sweet, kind of umami, and it contrasts well with the noodles.”
Bánh Mì (8/10):
Andrew ordered a bánh mì, and while the rest of us didn’t try it, we will take his word that, “There’s no meat, but it’s still so good.” The bánh mì contained the regular cilantro, jalapenos, pickled daikon, and carrots in a Vietnamese-style baguette, along with a few twists. The addition of mint and cucumbers added a refreshing touch, and the same lemongrass tofu and something we couldn’t quite identify, but tasted meaty, replaced the usual pate and pork.
Bánh Da Lợn (Pandan/Mung Bean Steamed Cakes) (6/10):
For dessert, we ordered some intriguing looking green triangular striped steamed cakes. The alternating layers of pale yellow mung bean and vibrant green pandan were slightly sweet and had a chewy, mochi-like texture. They also had a subtle vanilla flavor and were incredibly sticky. While it wasn’t particularly flavorful, it was still a solid dessert.
After our lunch we explored the temple and discovered that Giác Minh grows the sugarcane and kumquats they use for their sugarcane juice, along with dragonfruit and an array of other fruits and vegetables. The temple itself was gorgeous and definitely worth checking out. Sarah and Minh also rang a bell that was twice their heights (after asking permission first of course).