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Cheap, Tasty, Healthy

Playing with fire at Mai Huong

Photo by Jeanne RiceI had gone to Mai Hu'o'ng in Costa Mesa for dinner, but something I noticed on the lunch menu brought me back a couple of days later: a chicken sandwich and a cup of French coffee (hot or iced) for just $3. I love a good chicken sandwich, and I love good, strong, thick-as-molasses coffee. And there's no beating that price.

The Mai Hu'o'ng sandwich appeared to be put together like this: chop together teriyaki chicken with carrots, onions and a couple of green entries I couldn't quite make out and stuff it into a freshly baked French roll. It looked pretty unimposing, so I drenched it generously with some mysterious red sauce in a bottle with Vietnamese lettering on the front and proceeded to take an enthusiastic bite. My taste buds suddenly fused together. My tongue felt as if I had just gargled lighter fluid. Water ran from my eyes and nose. Turns out those green ingredients were cilantro and jalapeños. And that lettering on the bottle must translate into "can of whup-ass in a bottle" because it was some spicy shit.

So I'm sitting there in agony when the urge comes to drink something. But all I had was a cup of steaming hot French coffee. I mentally debated what to do, then rationalized it couldn't make things worse to drench a three-alarm fire in my mouth with hot java. So I'm a dumbass. Like he had a sixth sense about these things, the proprietor showed up just in time with a glass of ice water, which I quickly downed, saving the ice to melt in my wounded mouth.

A few moments later, after depositing snot, sweat and tears into my napkin, I squirted more whup-ass on the sandwich, took another big ol' bite and washed it down with more hot coffee. If you'd like to repeat the above routine without the coffee, the sandwich alone is only $1.50. They also serve barbecued beef or ham and cheese sandwiches at the same price. Asian and American teas and sodas are available.

You don't have to be a fire breather to appreciate Mai Hu'o'ng, which translates as "Little Buttercup" and is named after the woman who runs the kitchen, according to our young waitress, who should know whereof she speaks since the woman is her mother. Little Buttercup's restaurant specializes in intriguing combinations of garden-fresh herbs and vegetables to achieve satisfying flavors.

Nothing proves this more than the goi cuon (spring rolls), a healthy alternative to deep-fried Chinese egg rolls (a Vietnamese version also served here is fabulous and costs a mere buck for two rolls; make sure they don't forget the fish sauce). In the spring rolls, shrimp, cilantro, sprouts and shredded carrots are rolled in rice paper. If that sounds boring, it is—until you dip it in the accompanying peanut sauce. It may sound like an offbeat combination, but it's an acquired taste you'll acquire quickly. A tray of two spring rolls and a cup of sauce only sets you back $2.

In the pork and vermicelli, long, seasoned strips of grilled pork conquer a mountain of the thin noodles. It's just $3.75. In the egg noodle with seafood, you get jumbo shrimp, large pieces of crab, broccoli, cilantro and a boiled egg topping a mound of rice for $4.75.

You can get combination dinners at this place for less than 5 bucks, and they come with soup and salad. Individual entrées are $2.50 for regular portions and $4.50 for large sizes. Fire extinguishers not included.

Mai Hu'o'ng, located at 1113 Baker St., Ste. E, Costa Mesa, is open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (714) 957-0451. Dinner for two, less than $20, food only. No alcohol. Cash only.
 
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