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Baked On Catfish
Thien An’s meat-heavy meals are more like belly-busting endurance contests
Thien An might be one of the most expensive Vietnamese restaurants in OC. But when a typical Little Saigon dive has $3 phos and $2 bánh mìs, “expensive” is a relative term. Actually, the prices at Thien An are on par with a meal at Chili’s or T.G.I. Friday’s. If you pay a little more here than you would at a pho joint, it’s because Thien An is a special-occasion establishment, where birthdays and weddings are celebrated with impressive platters of baked catfish or seven courses of beef—two of the most elaborate meals found in Vietnamese cuisine.
The latter is a meat feast to equal the grandest Brazilian churrasco. And at $14.99 per person, it’s a fraction of the cost for a standard cut at an American steakhouse. On top of that, “bo 7 mon” is an interactive experience, incorporating elements of Korean barbecue and Japanese shabu shabu—and that’s just two of the courses.
13518 Harbor Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
Region: Garden Grove
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If you think you’re in for a nonstop bovine bender, you’re only half-right. Thanks to the mountains of herbs and lettuce (not to mention the cucumbers, green bananas, bean sprouts, pickled carrots and daikon) served immediately when you order, you end up eating more vegetables than an avowed carnivore probably bargained for.
The meal officially starts with Thien An’s signature salad, a tartly dressed mound in which crunch takes on new meaning. Chilled slices of celery, thin ribbons of tripe, chopped peanuts, crisply fried onions, jellyfish, carrots, shrimp and julienned beef jolt your mouth with a texture assault.
Things get even more interesting when the condiments are brought out for the next dish. First, there’s the obligatory nuoc mam (fish sauce) and chili paste, then finely sliced pickled lemongrass, chopped peanuts and a pink, salty-sweet sauce made from fermented shrimp called mam nem. You are to mix-and-match them for dunking.
Most indispensable are the stacked rice-paper discs. Dip each disc into a bowl of warm water, wetting every inch, just before you need it. Within seconds, what was once stiff will turn supple and as stretchy as latex, ready to be used as the platform and rolling medium for the bo nuong vi—thin slices of beef cooked tableside atop a heated iron dome.
When your flap of meat is done to a crisp sizzle, transfer it onto the moistened rice paper. Layer on the veggies and herbs, such as mint, tia to and basil. Then roll it into as tight a cigar as you can manage. Dunk the results in sauce. Eat. Repeat.
Unlike the bo nuong vi, the next two courses come precooked. Pop ’em straight into your mouth. Both explode with flavorful fat, but especially the bo nuong mo chai, seasoned-ground-beef spheres encased in caul. Since they self-baste during broiling, they’ll be the juiciest meatballs you’ll ever taste. The bo nuong la lop are stubby meat stogies rolled inside lalot leaves, which hints of a marriage between grape leaf and nori.
While you scarf these morsels down, the metal griddle is taken off the flame and replaced with a small vessel of vinegar broth. A plate of thinly sliced tenderloin arrives shortly thereafter. Take each piece and wave it around in the boiling liquid until opaque. Repeat the rolling process, or eat it plain.
At this point, your belt will feel a little tight. Do not relent. There are two more courses to go, including the bo cha dum, a steamed-meat cake studded with peas, mushrooms and mercilessly aggressive whole peppercorns. Scoop it up with some shrimp crackers before you move on to the final dish: a gigantic bowl of soup with clear broth, rice, alphabet pasta, a few strands of rice noodles, cilantro and bits of beef. Unless you count competitive eating as a hobby, leftovers are inevitable.
And I haven’t forgotten about Thien An’s baked catfish, the best you’ll encounter anywhere in OC, with a glossy, golden-brown, papery skin that crackles like parchment and a moist, pulpy flesh. For the families gathering inside the neon-lit, mirror-bedecked restaurant, no other dish elicits more awe. A small one will set you back $32.99 and will only feed two. The largest specimen retails for $40.99 and will be a guaranteed showstopper. That $3 bowl of pho can wait for another day.
Thien An, 13518 Harbor Blvd., Ste. 6, Garden Grove, (714) 530-4955. Open Mon.-Thurs., 3-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Meal for two, $30-$40, food only. Beer and wine.