Cars screech and honk. Drivers yell and flirt, get out and slurp some pho, then move on to karaoke, ending the night at coffee shops that never close—even if there's a shooting. Welcome to Little Saigon, Westminster, capital of the Vietnamese diaspora, the most electric neighborhood in Orange County, the place that never stops buzzing on the strongest coffee on earth. This is the Westminster seared into the brains of the world, the Westminster where tens of thousands once protested outside a video store because the owner hung a poster of Ho Chi Minh, the Westminster of men who still wear their South Vietnamese army fatigues.
"Westminster is Little Saigon and so are parts of Santa Ana, Fountain Valley and Garden Grove. I can't separate the cities from the barrio," says Taylur Thu Hien Ngo, a sometime artist better known as one of the hosts of One Mic, a monthly open-mic night for Vietnamese-Americans to perform skits, recite poetry, play music or just rant. But concentrating on the Vietnamese aspect of Westminster shuts out one of the most diverse cities in Orange County, a place that splits almost into thirds between white, Asian and Latino residents. This is where the only Zoroastrian temple in Southern California stands, where the county's sole Colombian market sells produce for our largest South American community.
Consider Little Saigon a grand cosmic joke—not that Vietnamese refugees rebuilt their war-torn lives in the heart of Midwestern Orange County, but that such vivacity, such life took hold in a town founded by Rev. Lemuel Webber in 1870 as a Presbyterian temperance colony. His tombstone reads, "His memory and works will endure when this stone has wasted away," and Webber's legacy was such that Westminster farmers refused to grow grapes because they associated grapes with alcohol. More than a century later, conservative wackjobs still try to run the town—last year, a trio of Westminster school board trustees endangered millions in state funds so Westminster schools could discriminate against transgendered students. But lovely life always wins out in Westminster, life as translucent as the boba pearls every teenager drinks with aplomb.
Best Church The Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest religions and one of the first to profess faith in one God. Its sole Southern California temple is in Westminster, opened in 1987 and possessor of one of the world's largest libraries on the religion, with more than 4,000 volumes. 8952 Hazard Ave., Westminster, (714) 893-4737; www.californiazoroastriancenter.org.
Best Market Sara's Mercado. For four years, Sara's Mercado, a storefront in a section of Westminster Boulevard not occupied by Little Saigon, has imported Colombian produce directly from the homeland. Its three poorly lit aisles tower above shoppers' heads with Colombian favorites: smoked oysters, slabs of arequipe (a decadent, silky milk candy), fruity cooking sauces and three different types of salty-sweet fried plantain chips for snacking. 7134 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (714) 903-0900.
Best Standing Statues The Cultural Court. It is little more than 72 statues of various Chinese monks standing around a big statue of Confucius—like that's nothing. It's something; it's monumental. Seventy-two statues! Families photograph each other next to their favorite; the rest of the time, elderly Vietnamese men sit amongst the statues and play chess. 9225 Bolsa Ave., Westminster.
Best Film GaffeThe Fast and the Furious.In this groundbreaking 2001 hot rod movie, an Asian biker gang zooms through the T & K gates toward the Cultural Court, where they blow up an undercover cop's car. Problem is, the Cultural Court is about a mile away from T & K Warehouse, making this scene the most hilarious continuity gaffe since Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Best Bikini Bar Green Girl Saloon. If you're a nice guy who's been feeling a bit down, bored, sickly or randy, $5 will net you one (1) bag of peanuts, shells included; one (1) generous well whiskey and Coke; and three (3) nubile young bartenders in thigh-high boots, fishnet stockings and teensy, weensy, perma-wedge bikinis. All this for five measly bills—if you're a nice guy. 14341 Beach Blvd., Westminster, (714) 897-8612.
Best Spy Shop Spy Guys. Wiretaps, mini-mini cameras, infrared devices—for those of you getting ready to try out for the sheriff's department, Spy Guys is your shop. Or you could make a fortune in used cars. That works too. 14032 Beach Blvd., Westminster, (714) 899-1155.
Best Newspaper DynastyNguoi Viet.Yen Do started Nguoi Viet out of his garage in 1978: a four-page weekly with hand-written accent marks because American presses couldn't print Vietnamese. Today, it's the largest Vietnamese-language paper in the country, with a daily circulation of 18,000, and his daughter Anh is a celebrated journalist in her own right, having worked as TheOrange County Register's Asian-American affairs columnist for the past seven years. 14772 Moran St., Westminster, (714) 892-9414.
Best Community RoomNguoi Viet.Here is where young Vietnamese-Americans frequently put on art shows, film screenings, lectures, debates and poetry that usually end up becoming landmarks in Asian-American arts. 14772 Moran St., Westminster, (714) 892-9414.
Best Radio Station Turn the dial to KVNR, AM 1480 for news, recipes and health advice—all in Vietnamese. One of the most authoritative ways the Vietnamese community here receives information. 15781 Brookhurst St., Ste. 101, Westminster, (714) 918-4444; www.littlesaigonradio.com.
Best Non-Vietnamese Rest-aurant Lazy Dog Cafe. The menu veers from pizza to kung pao—each inherently tasty. Shanghai tacos come in a large bowl filled with chicken ground to hamburg consistency, stir-fried with water chestnuts and shredded carrots, and accompanied by a plate of iceberg lettuce leaves. 16310 Beach Blvd., Westminster, (714) 500-1140; www.thelazydogcafe.com.
Best Latino Restaurant Pura Vida. One of two county restaurants specializing in Costa Rican cuisine, a dazzlingly jumbled diet with Caribbean, Mesoamerican and even Chinese influences: fried rice, chow mein and tamales. Whether it's chicken, pork or beef, whether they butterfly slabs or chop up gorgeous chunks, all the meat dishes are lean and succulent and come served with veggies. 6731 Westminster Blvd., Ste. 113, Westminster, (714) 893-3611; www.puravidacostarican.com.
Best Hick Restaurant Quan Hy. Country-style Vietnamese—a lot more flavor and eccentricity than food like pho, and you taste a lot of different things. Their mixed bowls are dynamite—seafood medley, pork and beef and shrimp and fish and vegetables. 9727 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 775-7179; 10212 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 636-1652.
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Best Mall Asian Garden Mall. As the Westminster Mall falls into desolation and despair, Asian Garden Mall continues to attract the Vietnamese diaspora like one giant, pho-scented homing device. This two-story is full of Vietnamese shops selling food, clothes, music, medicines, books and Buddhist artifacts. 9200 Bolsa Ave., Westminster.
Best Dining Experience Dragon Phoenix Palace. Get your chopsticks ready for the weekend dim sum, because in minutes, you'll have a tableful of sizzling pork and shrimp pot stickers, savory dumplings, won-ton soup, and wonderful salt-and-pepper squid. 9211 Bolsa Ave., Stes. 201-208, Westminster, (714) 893-1976.
Best Vegetarian Van Hanh Vegetarian Restaurant. Vietnamese cuisine includes a proud tofu tradition, and this menu is its full, finest flowering. No limp kung pao and imitation orange chicken here; instead, you'll find biting papaya concoctions drenched in chile powder and lime juice, noodle selections studded with tasty tofu and veggies, and more rice plates than in Uncle Ben's wildest dreams. 9455 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 531-4661.
Best Sandwiches Bnh Mi Cho Cu. You tolerate brusque customer service for their 10 choices of bnh m, the foot-long sandwich that is one of the most delicious robberies in the gustatory world at $1.50 per stickup. Barbecue pork is charred to a ruddy crispness, yet moist. Meatballs are densely herbed and juicy, not bitter like those found at so many bnh m shops. And a breakfast bnh m includes the perfect scrambled egg, oozing just enough yolk to liven up your morning. 14520 Magnolia St., Unit B, Westminster, (714) 891-3718.