By OC Weekly Staff
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
By Cleo Tobbi
The World on Your Plate
In Orange County, you can go around the world in 50 states (or cities, or regions, or styles, or whatever)
Next time some xenophobe tells you Orange County is culinarily bland, doesn’t offer anything other than Taco Bell and Cheesecake Factory, remain calm. Don’t yell; don’t grit your teeth. Instead, roll up this issue and . . . give it to them. Not only are the cuisines of more than 50 countries available in OC restaurants, but many of those eateries also specialize in a particular genre or regional style of those countries.
We’ve picked the county’s most essential cuisines, those that offer the greatest depth and diversity of offerings. It’s not a comprehensive list (we had to limit the Mexico section by half because, well, we can’t let wabs take over everything), and that’s the point. We live on fertile ground for food-lovers, and no amount of asphalt and housing tracts will ever change that fundamental truth. Now, eat! And if we missed something, yell about it at our food blog, Stick a Fork In It!
555 N. El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672
Region: San Clemente
4470 Katella Ave.
Rossmoor, CA 90720
Region: Los Alamitos
600 S. Harbor Blvd.
Fullerton, CA 92832
369 E. 17th St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Region: Costa Mesa
2920 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Region: Costa Mesa
26612 Towne Center Drive
Foothill Ranch, CA 92610
Region: Foothill Ranch
2045 N. Tustin St.
Orange, CA 92865
1400 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Region: Costa Mesa
5406 Walnut Ave.
Irvine, CA 92604
*** UNITED STATES ***
Unlike Lucille’s Smokehouse, which owes its title to a fictional Southern character dreamed up by a clever marketer, Iva Lee’s in San Clemente is actually named after an actual person: owner Lisa Wagoner’s Southern nana, who raised her on grits and gumbo. Here, they’re upgraded, cooked in elegant, three-course Cajun dinners that can include a beignet salad, jambalaya and a cup of fresh-brewed chicory coffee at completion. (EG) 555 N. El Camino Real, Ste. E, San Clemente, (949) 361-2855; www.ivalees.com.
The official name—Mustard’s Chicago-Style Eatery—should clue you in as to what this low-key, sports-themed café serves up. Whichever wiener you order, from the petite “classic” (a single steamed dog) to the kick-ass Wrigley Field Firedog (char-broiled and propelled by homemade hot mustard), it’ll be a Vienna Beef dog in a soft, poppy-seed-covered bun that’s topped with “the works” (mustard, bright-green relish, onions, tomatoes, pickle spears, a pickled sport pepper and celery salt). Just one question: Will they dare rename the “Sears Tower” dog the “Willis Tower” dog now? (LM) 3630 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 598-1662.
If you’re indecisive, avoid Katella Deli’smassive deli/bakery/bar. For its 24 different sandwiches will tempt, and that’s before you get to the omelets; salads; burgers; and beef, fish and chicken dishes. Oh, and did we mention that it also does breakfast? So . . . what to order? Our money’s on the chicken matzo-ball soup, followed by the Times Square combo—NYC in a sandwich, with hot corned beef (or hot pastrami) on rye, plus ’slaw, Russian dressing and potato salad. Diet schmiet! (LM) 4470 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-8611.
One of Southern California’s two wholly New Mexican dives is in Fullerton: Anita’s New Mexico-Style Mexican Food. Order the enchiladas, and be surprised!(GA) 600 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 525-0977; www.anitasfullerton.com.
The focus at Plums Café is the eats of our wet, dour neighbors to the north—think salmon, chowder, steaks and chops—plus terrific wines and beers. Although Plums is best known for breakfast and brunch (both of which include the humongous “Famous Dutch Baby” deep-dish pancake), its must-try dinner entrée is the lamburger, made with feta, wild oregano and caramelized onions, served on a buttered, toasted bun and paired with either couscous or the thinnest shoestring fries on earth. (LM) 369 E. 17th St., Ste. B, Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7586; www.plumscafe.com.
Though we haven’t got the legendary rivalry between Philadelphia’s Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, we do have multiple places hawking the city’s cheesesteaks. But the king is Philly’s Best, not just because the meat is quality rib-eye or top round, planed thin, griddled, then deposited into a roll with a swipe of Cheez Whiz, but also for the other indigenous treasures: posters, sodas and TastyKakes, pastries so sweet they make Zingers taste like mud. (EG) Multiple locations; www.eatphillysbest.com.
We’ve spilled so much ink on Memphis Soul Café over the years that Weekly love for its two spots is almost cliché. But Diego Velasco’s take on the South makes it a necessary one. Gumbo? Check. Ribs? You bet. Hush puppies? Of course. The po’ boys are a bayou dream, but we can never resist the pulled-pork sandwich, overflowing with juicy shredded meat and accompanied by shoestring fries, served with just the right mix of sassiness and friendliness. (LM) 2920 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-7685; 201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 564-1064; www.memphiscafe.com.
*** CHINA ***
When you go to the San Gabriel Valley, the mecca of Chinese eating in America, most likely you’ll be eating Cantonese. Heck, any place you go where authentic Chinese food is served, it will probably be Cantonese. Even the usually dubious source of info Wikipedia says, “Its prominence outside China is due to its palatability to Westerners and the great numbers of early emigrants from Guangdong.” Well, for once, it’s right on. In OC, its best representative is King Lobster Palace, with classic dim sum in the morning and glossy char siu buns stuffed with pork all day. Dinnertime brings out the steamed fish, the House Special lobster and the shark-fin soup (we did say Cantonese, not vegan). (EG) 2045 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 282-9788; kinglobsterpalace.com.
If you ever find yourself at a Chinese restaurant and an iceberg salad starts your meal and a fortune cookie ends it, you’re probably sitting in a dining subphylum best described as Chinese-American, the kind of place that predates the ubiquitous takeout chains with cute pandas as mascots. We’re talking kung pao chicken and sweet-and-sour everything. May Garden is a throwback to those times, with a dining room that looks more like a country home in Nantucket than Nanking. (EG) 1400 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-9229.
Jamillah Ma introduced Orange County to Chinese Muslim cuisine more than a decade ago, and she continues the craft at Ma’s Islamic Restaurant,a spacious lot just past the railroad tracks. Her pedigree doesn’t mean this place rests on its laurels, however. Far from it: Standards are higher than the distinctive dome outside. The scallion flatbread, as large and thick as deep-dish pizza, is legendary, while the orange chicken, characterized by just the right amount of sweetness, elicits “oohs” and “aahs” from those who have succumbed to it. And FYI: Muslims know lamb the way Vietnamese know pho.(LM) 601 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Anaheim, (714) 446-9553.
The bright, popular, child-friendly Tri-Village café showcases Chinese cuisine and northern dim sum, with the rest of the menu devoted to massively portioned dishes. Too many specialties to single out, although can’t-go-wrong choices include the pan-fried pot stickers: eight envelopes of charred, doughy casing filled with pork and vegetables. And if you’re undecided about what else to order, simply scan the room for something you like the look of and utter the magic words, “We’ll have what they’re having.” It worked for us! (LM) 14121 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine, (949) 857-8833.
If you desire a little spice in your Chinese food, it has to be Szechuan fare. The two outposts of Chong Qing Mei Wei specialize in the region’s hellish cuisine, bent on eroding your stomach lining—these places love chile oil like Italians love olive oil. Fistfuls of dried, gnarled red chiles over some dishes will make it look like a red party popper exploded, igniting an unquenchable fire in your mouth that continues to smolder in your gut. “Please aware of the spiciness for the spicy food,” the menu warns. Duh! (EG) 5406 Walnut Ave., Ste. C, Irvine, (949) 651-8886; 22371 El Toro Rd., Ste. A, Lake Forest, (949) 380-8869.
We fully support Taiwan’s autonomy, Chuck DeVore, but bear with us for the sake of this article, will ya? The island’s food can be as simple as rice topped with soy-sauce-cooked ground pork, as dastardly complex as the Taipei night-market specialty, stinky tofu. The latter is an infamous, fetid-smelling treat, which is probably best left to outdoor eating; yet they serve it at Nice Time Deli, indoors, at arguably the longest-running, most-consistent Taiwanese restaurant in OC. (EG) 5408 Walnut Ave., Ste. A, Irvine, (949) 654-8542.
*** INDIA ***
Rasthal Vegetarian Cuisine is dedicated to the meat-free cuisine of southern India, as well as to how they eat: the thali, a kind of subcontinental TV-dinner tray with slots for whatever veggie stews the kitchen is turning out. Add unlimited roti, soft basmati rice or khichdi—rice with lentils—and top with chutneys and garnishes (beware the nuclear-powered pickled carrots!). The adjacent room is a Gujarati chaat shop, the Indian equivalent of a candy store, stocked with salted and spiced rice, lentils, beans, nuts, chiles and noodles. (LM) 2751-2755 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 527-3800.
Chinese food goes where the diaspora takes it, even in India. Don’t expect a dumbing down of flavors, though. The Indians go the other way with it. What you get in the fusion is doubly spicy and unforgiving in its heat. Annapoorna has a dish called chili chicken, as explosive as a Chinese firecracker and as sweat-inducing as a Mumbai summer. They even have Chinese-style fried rice, even though their own culture already has an indigenous one-pot rice dish called biryani. (EG) 14450 Culver Dr., Ste. A, Irvine, (949) 651-1144; www.myannapoorna.com.
It’s worth a visit to Haveli for the luxurious interior (almost) as much as its food. The food is largely stuff you’ve seen, but done better. The spicing is spot-on—tandoori chicken literally sizzles, while curry redeems the dish from the dozens of bad buffets in the county. Combine with a garlic naan, and no Twilight fan will talk to you again. (LM) 13882 Newport Ave., Ste. G, Tustin, (714) 669-1011; www.havelifineindiancuisine.com.
Dosa Place is one of the precious few Southern California restaurants specializing in the cuisine of Andhra Pradesh, a state renowned for scorching tamarind-based platters and, of course, dosas—a pancake-cum-crepe-cum-waffle cone with a savory center. Its behemoth size needs an outstretched arm to describe. Often rolled to bazooka-long cylinders, its wingspan is meant to elicit awe, shooting past the width of its plate by at least a foot. (EG) 13812 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 505-7777; www.dosaplace.com.
*** ITALY ***
The lengthy menu of Italian-American creations at Cucina Alessá, boosted by daily specials, makes it virtually impossible to choose, but we’ve never been disappointed by anything, from pasta to salads to meat and fish. Try the standout conchiglie gamberi e asparagi, a classic pairing of shrimp with asparagus, enriched by a lobster cream sauce, or the superlative rib-eye. Heck, even the much-maligned Brussels sprout—prepared here in classic Italian fashion, with garlic, pancetta, sage and butter—is a must-order. (LM) 6700 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 645-2148; 520 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 969-2148; www.cucinaalessa.com.
David Myers’ and Steve Samson’s Pizzeria Ortica has only been open since January, but in that short time, it has already built up a loyal following. And for good reason: The food is seriously bueno. With sweet-salty singed crusts and quality toppings, these high-end pies will make devotees of American styles (deep-dish, thin-crust) yearn for the motherland. The best: salame piccante e funghi (proper, spicy salami offset by silky mixed mushrooms and creamy mozzarella), but the faultless menu also encompasses tagliatelle Bolognese, affogato and other dishes. (LM) 650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 445-4900; www.pizzeriaortica.com.
Massimo Navarretta was raised on a farm in Calabria, Italy’s southernmost province, a wine-producing region known to the ancient Greek colonists as Oenotria, or “land of wine.” No wonder his food at Onotria matches so well with vino. Ever-tender osso bucco as soft as pudding. Wild-boar pasta folded into origami shapes. Eggplant bruschetta layered with salty goat cheese. All made with either local seasonal produce or what grows in the restaurant’s garden. A restaurant that grows its own food in OC? Well, that’s how it’s done in Italy. Capice? (EG) 2831 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 641-5952; www.onotria.com.
At DeSimone’s, Cuban sandwiches get pressed to the tight compactness of a checkbook, guaranteed to appease Tony Montana. But their Italian sandwich you can’t refuse. Cue the Godfather theme because the Deluxe is a Brando-sized feast. Dry salami, ham, mortadella, cotto salami, capacolla and provolone—all the Italian money meats stacked lovingly on good bread. You know what to do with the cannoli. (EG) 6850 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 847-0922.
Among the many Italian cuisines, Venetian is often shamefully overlooked. So we must give thanks to Canaletto, a cavernous Fashion Island hotspot, for bringing it to the forefront. Not surprisingly, fresh fish is a big feature: Don’t miss the polipo con patate appetizer, a warm octopus-and-potato salad that’s lively on the tongue, or the show-stopper of an entrée, branzino al sale, a whole Mediterranean sea bass baked under a salt crust and served tableside with a flourish. Just try not to make off with the dessert cart, on which more regional treasures flourish. (LM) 545 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 640-0900; www.ilfornaio.com.
*** JAPAN ***
Honda-Ya’s traditional-style izakaya (pub/restaurant) serves tapas-sized portions, which, combined with the late-night hours, make it a much-loved spot for postbar grazing. If your butt can stand it, head for the tatami room and be prepared to launch headlong into all manner of deep-fried, simmered, grilled and steamed fare. The yakitori dishes are dependable (although it’s easy to lose track of how many you’ve ordered), but our favorite is undoubtedly the quail eggs, subtly sweet with a hint of carbon imbued by the binchotan grill. (LM) 556 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 832-0081.
LITTLE TOKYO BY WAY OF SANTA ANA
Teriyaki with horchata and Tapatío at Mos II. ’Nuff said. (GA) 1008 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 772-8543; 117 S. Western Ave., Anaheim, (714) 761-5283; 221 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 835-8288; 1933 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 541-5997.
If you think most Japanese chefs are dead serious about their craft, you haven’t met the chef at Kappo Hana, who is doubly so. Why? He’s the only chef in OC we know who has the balls and the mad skills to serve kaiseki, the highest form of cooking in a cuisine already steeped in tradition. The meal features a laundry list of methods and ingredients, all in a multicourse, seasonal-menu popular centuries before seasonal menus became popular. (EG) 25260 La Paz Rd., Ste. A, Laguna Hills, (949) 770-7746; www.kappohana.com.
There are restaurants like Cafe Hiro in Japan, establishments mixing Western flavors with Japanese ones. They are as adored there as Cafe Hiro is here. You can have rice or risotto as starch, demi glaze or ponzu as sauce. The sea urchin roe mingles with the spaghetti, and the panna cotta vies for your attention along with a green-tea blanc manger. Cafe Hiro is a model for society at large, where flavors intermarry and ingredients add up to more than the sum of their parts in a sing-song, “We Are the World” harmony. (EG) 10509 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 527-6090; www.cafehiro.com.
The intersection of Paularino and Bristol streets in Costa Mesa is the octagon of OC’s ramen wars, with no fewer than six places hawking Japan’s favorite noodle soup, each focusing on a regional version. Nevertheless, the undisputed king is Santoka; its Hokkaido-style preparation means an insulating layer of melted fat in the broth that keeps the milky-rich, pork-bone broth at the proper temperature: obscenely hot. (EG) 665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6699.
Sushi bars exist at every corner mini-mall nowadays, serving what most Japanese would consider an abomination of their most treasured and iconic food. (As you might have suspected, California rolls aren’t Japanese.) Shibutani-san, the master itamae at Sushi Shibucho doesn’t do it. His art is nigiri, an expression of tradition at its barest: surgically cut slices of fish sitting on perfectly hand-formed, bite-sized bullets of rice. Just say, “Omakase” and expect anything but teriyaki chicken. (EG) 590 W. 19th St, Costa Mesa, (949) 642-2677.
*** KOREA ***
Underestimate The Past Memories’ yogurt soju at your peril. The cocktail of Calpico and rice liquor is weak but inordinately easy to drink and dangerous precisely because of it. Also offered: Ice-cold Hite beer gets you drunk the old fashioned way. Both are poured liberally in the kind of establishment that opens when the offices close and doesn’t shutter until the wee hours of the morning. Drinking and eating, as it turns out, are also the Korean ways of relaxing after a hard day on the job. (EG) 9252 Garden Grove Blvd., Ste. 29, Garden Grove, (714) 638-7818.
Everyone’s heard of Korean barbecue, but Shi Do Rak is purported to be the first to pair it with thin slices of rice-noodle sheet called dduk bo sam. You wrap the coaster-sized white squares around the meats you pluck sizzling from the griddle. Then, swirl the rice paper taco around either chili paste or salted sesame oil before stuffing the whole thing in your mouth. Shots of soju and bites of kimchi are required in between. Conversation and good times follow. (EG) 14805 Jeffrey Rd., Ste. H, Irvine, (949) 653-7668; 9691 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 534-7668.
They don’t have a catchy motto or a cartoon mascot. What Kyochon does have is adulation from the press, food geeks and actual Koreans. But on the record, the fried chicken here is more finger-lickin’ than the Colonel’s, with spicy kimchi hints and just a suggestion of batter. The rest of its crispness is owed to the exacting way in which they fry the birds—a method that renders off all subcutaneous fat and transforms chicken skin into a thin, shimmering shell that crackles like burnt sugar. (EG) 12840 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 891-2449.
Soondubu comforts all during the chill of winter. How could it not? A boiling pot of soup is brought to your table still roiling like a witch’s cauldron. Within gurgles a chile-spiked broth that is hot in both definitions of the word. But the main draw is the floating globs of silken tofu, bringer of warmth and nourishment. Kaju Tofu Restaurant is where this dish is at its best.(EG) 8895 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 636-2849.
Sullungtang gets its name from its appearance (it literally means “snowy-thick soup”), but the brew owes its flavor to the boiling of an ox’s leg bones. In the old country, it was meant to stretch meager supplies of protein, extracting every bit of nutrition from the beast. These days, the soup is well-known as a hangover cure. Like all restaurants specializing in sullungtang, Jang Mo Gip supplies a tableside container of salt, with which you can control its seasoning—control you wished you had the night before. (EG) 9711 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 534-1340; jangmogip.synthasite.com.
*** MEXICO ***
El Fogón makes a green pozole that cures cancer. Okay, not cancer . . . but a bad day, for sure. (GA) 1228 E. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 972-8995.
The birthplace of mariachi, tequila and the prettiest fair-skinned señoritas not from Zacatecas loves its birria, goat stewed until it slips off bone like water going over glass. Cheap, huge portions can be found at El Cabrito, complete with its juices in a cup for sipping. (GA) 1604 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-8461.
The sign at Taco Factory looks like a relic from the days when the county’s Mexicans stuck to three cities near the tracks; the menu also dates from those days. But the food? Green chile, taco salads and other antiquated favorites? Eternal. (GA) 14455 Newport Ave., Tustin, (714) 731-1111.
Mexico’s capital eats masa in dozens of ways, and you’ll find most of them at El Rincón Chilango. Quesadillas with huitlacoche, thick mulitas, cheesy tlacoyos and the pambazo, a type of torta created with a red salsa-soaked bolillo griddled and studded with potatoes. Mmm . . . griddled, salsa-soaked bolillo. (GA) 1133 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-5096.
Las Brisas de Apatzingan offers all the Mexican meals of your Southern California experience—ignore them all. Pick those Spanish words you don’t know yet—aporrillado, a type of machaca, or the rice stew morisqueta. And the small tamales called huchepos? Sweet, made from fresh sweet corn—the best in Orange County. (GA) 1524 S. Flower St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-5584.
El Fortín offersMexican food as you’ve never experienced it. Tortillas? Called tlayudas, as large as a child’s Hula-Hoop. Moles? Fiery, sweet, savory—six of them. Dried crickets as appetizers, fruit-spiked horchata, and brick-sized tamales cooked in banana leaves and stuffed with bitter chocolate. Feast here, and you’ll wonder why the Reconquista can’t send more Oaxacans our way. (GA) 700 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 773-4290; 10444 Dale Ave., Stanton, (714) 252-9120; www.restaurantelfortin.com.
In Mexican popular culture, you don’t mess with people from this Pacific coastal state—not only is it the birthplace of most of the country’s drug barons, but also even the nice people combine the orneriness of a New Yorker with a Chi-Towner’s stubborn streak. These traits spill over to their seafood, best experienced at Mariscos Licenciado #2: fiery ceviche; chilled four-seafood soups served in hollowed-out coconuts; and the infamous aguachile, shrimp served in a cold lime broth and spiced to the levels of hell. (GA) 1052 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 776-3415.
*** MIDDLE EASTERN ***
Huge portions of superb Afghan grub are the attraction at Gyro N Kabob. Mantoo (dumplings) and bolani (similar to a potato naan) are appetizers you won’t find anywhere in OC that’s not an auntie’s kitchen, and an honorable mention must go to the yogurt-based drink doogh (similar to lassi), freshly made here with cucumber and dried mint. (LM) 14145 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 505-0713; www.gyronkabob.com.
Papa Hassan’s is the county’s old-guard Lebanese standard, but the best is Zena’s. Start, with mezza, passed-around plates of antipasto-like appetizers. Hummus reservoirs glistening with olive oil puddles. A creamy cheese called labneh to scoop out with fresh cucumbers. Main courses of char-burnished meats will also travel hand-to-hand, supplies dwindling as they makes their way down tables shoved together, end-to-end—the way family meals should always be eaten. (EG) 2094 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 279-9511.
Mike and Nancy Hawari hail from Nazareth, so leave Middle Eastern politics aside and worship at Kareem’s, their altar of yum: labneh pita (labneh is a dairy spread not unlike a minty version of Philadelphia cream cheese), shawermas, a crispy/spicy fattoush salad. For dinner, it has to be the hummus with pine nuts and meat—lightly charred, reminiscent of carne asada. And the falafels? Best on earth. (LM) 1208 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 778-6829.
A Whole Foods with a Middle Eastern predisposition and better prices is what Wholesome Choice is. It is also a food court, which can be a model for the U.N. Chinese, Mexican and pizza counters coexist to bring you dinner. The Persian counter, at which gruff, hairy-armed men turn spits of roasting meats on swords, gets the most business. In another area, guys knead and wrestle with the sangak dough, a flatbread with the surface area of three large pizzas. Hot out of the oven, sangak is peerless in flavor and circumference. (EG) 18040 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 551-4111; 5755 E. La Palma Ave.,Anaheim Hills, (714) 779-7000; www.wholesomechoice.com.
*** VIETNAM ***
Central Vietnamese cuisine is renowned for small bites presented with an artful flourish, intended to tantalize royal palates of Hue, the old imperial capital. Delicately steamed rice called banh beo comes in tiny saucers, gobbled up like you’re doing shots. A jackfruit salad you eat on crispy rice-cracker rafts encrusted with black sesame. There’s also bun bo Hue, a thicker, darker, heartier, beef noodle soup than the more proletariat dish you now know as pho. Best palaces for your intro are Quan Hy and Quan Hop. (EG) Quan Hy, 9727 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 775-7179; Quan Hop, 15640 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 689-0555.
Chiu Chow is actually a southern China province, but many of its natives have influenced Vietnamese culture over the centuries, leading to the namesake cuisine being more common in Little Saigons than Chinatowns. Lots of Cambodian influences as well, and no dish better exemplifies this delta of influences than the hu tieu Nam Vang (Phnom Penh-style noodle soup), which is Trieu Chau’s specialty. It is simultaneously the simplest and most complex soup you’ll ever slurp. The broth is pure, without any of pho’s anise-y perfumes. But the toppings will make a man out of you: shrimp, roasted duck haphazardly hacked by cleaver, pork, meat balls, fish cake and, for good measure, a honking piece of liver. Eat it. It’s good for you. (EG) 4401 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 775-1536.
If any good came from the French occupation of Vietnam, it is, of course, the food—the baguette being the best example of all. At Le Croissant Dore, it is the chosen starch, dipped like a doughnut into the house beef stew. You eat it while staring at a mural depicting a caricatured cobblestone Parisian street, absent any actual Frenchmen. If there were, there would be more competition for Le Croissant Dore’s famous fruit tarts, sought-after masterpieces worthy of Escoffier. (EG) 9122 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 895-3070.
How do you know Vien Dong is a Northern Vietnamese joint? One dish should say it all: cha ca Thang Long, small fillets of fish marinated in turmeric and galangal, then fried and served with tufts of dill. Why? Well, the delicacy earns its moniker from Thang Long, the old name for Hanoi. Then there’s the thit cay, which is a Northern Vietnamese curry traditionally made with dog. Calm down, PETA. No Fidos were harmed in the making of the dish at Vien Dong. Just your normal, everyday barnyard animals. (EG) 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-8253.
Can’t get more southern than the country’s Soc Trang province. Its famous bún mam (a soup so strikingly potent with herbs, chili and fish paste it makes pho taste as bland as Campbell’s) is the hit at Thanh Mai. When you’re done with that Haight-Ashbury of a bowl, advance to the bún rieu oc: crabmeat/sea snail soup. (GA) 9569 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 531-4088.
Taking the best of Vietnam’s Buddhist traditions with American excess, Zen Vegetarian traipses across the Vietnamese palate for vegan, delicious meals. Stop reading, and go visit any of the above, already! (GA) 9329 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 895-3637; www.zenvegetarian.com.