By Keith Plocek
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When it comes to cross-town food rivalries, OC isn’t anywhere near as rough-and-tumble as Philly or New York City. It seems even nearly identical names and similar menus aren’t enough to create animosity: If there is a feud between Trieu Chau and New Trieu Chau, it has been largely been invented by—and confined to—Yelp and Chowhound comment boards. Ask Trieu Chau’s owner Meng Tang and New Trieu Chau’s owner Andy Kwok, and they’ll tell you that they are content in letting the other one exist.
4401 W. First St.
Santa Ana, CA 92703
Region: Santa Ana
Both are notable as OC’s preeminent purveyors of Chao Chow noodle soup, also known as hu tieu or mi nam vang, a dish originating in China’s Guangdong province. Unlike pho, it is one of Little Saigon’s lesser-known noodle soups, but it can be had with the same delicate rice noodles or sturdier yellow egg noodles—or both.
Starting at 7 a.m., crowds gather at the entrance of both restaurants. If you fancy a Chinese doughnut—a salty, hollow stick used for dunking into your soup—you had better get there by 10. By 11 a.m., they’re cold, and all supplies are depleted by noon. At 5 p.m., both places close up for the day.
All similarities between the two noodle joints end there. Trieu Chau, an unapologetic dive, operates in a fevered state of controlled chaos. You’re liable to step on scraps of food when you walk through the place or get bumped by the busboy’s cleaning cart as you’re being seated. Most often, if you come alone or are in a small party, you will be asked to share a table with strangers. A friend fondly remembers how he once sat with an elderly lady who propped her feet up on a chair and started clipping her toenails after she finished slurping her noodles. On a recent visit, I spied a fellow diner taking a sip out of a communal spoon before he put it back into the jar of pickled chiles without a trace of shame.
If Trieu Chau feels like the Wild West, New Trieu Chau is like Knott’s Berry Farm’s version of it. It’s arguably more sanitized and safer for the faint of heart, but those descriptors also apply to New Trieu Chau’s soup.
And it is in the soup that you’ll see the biggest differences between the restaurants. I find Trieu Chau’s broth to be deeper in flavor—a marvelous, golden, soul-nourishing nectar, wrung from the bones of bird and hog. MSG is probably involved as a flavor enhancer, but so are floating bits of fried garlic that explode in bursts.
New Trieu Chau’s brew is decidedly lighter, almost a blank canvas onto which you are expected to dollop sauces and sprinkle white pepper from a condiment tray. New Trieu Chau has a few standards ready for exactly this purpose, but the original Trieu Chau trumps that by stocking its tables with more condiments than I knew what to do with.
The roster sounds like a supermarket shelf: Sriracha, sugar, white pepper, two kinds of pickled chile pepper (red and green), fresh Thai bird chilis, salt, dried chili flakes, hoisin, soy sauce, fish sauce, chopped peanuts, chili garlic sauce. And best of all, there’s Trieu Chau’s signature chili paste, a sweetish, savory concoction swimming in oil as crimson as pepperoni grease.
Among the toppings at both restaurants are liver, fish balls, chewy flaps of fish cake, ground pork meat, slices of roast pork and boiled shrimp. New Trieu Chau favors clean squares of white-meat chicken as the poultry component, while Trieu Chau opts for the bone-on dark parts of chicken and also roasted duck, each with scraps of its gelatinous skin still attached. Since these pieces are hacked haphazardly from the whole bird with a blatant disregard for the location of the animal’s actual joints, there will be occasional loose bone fragments in the soup. Spitting them into a napkin is not frowned upon; it’s expected.
For an appetizer, both do a great crab and shrimp ball, which is actually more cylindrical than spherical and contains more ground pork and diced water chestnuts than shrimp or crab. Think of the shu mai dumplings you had at dim sum, except wrapped in soy paper, steamed, cut into wheels and deep-fried. Though the specimens are nearly identical, Trieu Chau’s version is slightly bigger in diameter, and the side of pickled vegetables is more pungent and garlicky.
I also like Trieu Chau’s house porridge. Their wondrous soup stock is used to cook the rice down to a mush as soothing as balm. The yang chow fried rice, in which onions and crisp-edged char siu account for most of the bulk, can easily feed two people over the course of two days. The same can be said of the fried-rice portions at New Trieu Chau. If you’re craving a crispy chow mein, New Trieu Chau’s is crunchier, though Trieu Chau’s chow-mein gravy is more lip-smacking.
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