Photo by Tenaya HillsThe best drink in Orange County is also the least advertised. Nuoc Mía Vien Tây in Garden Grove sells an ambrosial sugar cane juice so renowned throughout the Vietnamese diaspora it garnered mentions in The New York Times' profile of Little Saigon two years ago and in the acclaimed 2003 documentary Saigon, USA. But Vien Tây's marquee doesn't mention its famous potion in English—in Vietnamese, it's nuoc mía—or on the neon signs illuminating the tinted windows. A walk inside further complicates the mystery: in place of a menu, they've taped two Styrofoam cups near a steel juice extractor. The largest of the pair—about the size of a bowl—is labeled "$3" in faded black marker; the minor goes for $1.50. For all you know, that's what an order of tap water costs.
Even as you wander aimlessly around Vien Tây, though, the owners sense what brought you here and spring into action. They snatch some of the many sugar cane stalks lying on a cutting table and shove them through the surprisingly quiet juice extractor, chucking aside the sugar cane's rough skin as the machine transforms the plant's chewy pulp into an emerald-green liquid. Next follows a squeeze of fresh tangerine and kumquat extracts. Finally, the owners pour the juice into one of those advertised Styrofoam cups—now heavy with ice—and place it before you.
Intrigued, you snap off the plastic cap and sneak a peek—the stuff looks like an Orange Julius as imagined by leprechauns. But a deep sip reveals the greatness: frothy but smooth, the sugar cane's earthy sweetness is tempered by the citric candor of tangerine and kumquat. It is extraterrestrial. Nuoc Mìa Vien Tây's sugar cane juice is patient, it is kind—it's the I Corinthians 13 of the beverage world.
You're not done after sucking away at those last sugar cane bits. Follow your chug with a walk toward the eastern wall, where boxes contain dozens of bite-sized dried fruits prepared earlier that day. Grab a large spoon and bag and start shoveling: tamarind pits spiced with a muggy heat that simulates a Hue summer; pickled mangoes accompanied by chile powder; Chinese plums so sour your lips will collapse into your esophagus. Once you've plucked that jungle clean, proceed to the beef jerky stand, where seven types of the stuff lie behind a glass counter. This isn't the tough foil you've forever disavowed; Vietnamese beef jerky is crumbly and slightly sweet and features an aftertaste that lasts until the next day. Vien Tây even dries squid jerky, foul-smelling, bitter stuff that'll give you breath to make a dentist weep—and a gourmand smile: it's the tastiest source of halitosis since Limburger.
Nuoc Mía Vien Tây, 14370 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-9801.