Photo by Jack GouldWedged between the 405 and 22 freeways, Westminster has no great parks, beaches or mansions. It does have dozens of strip malls, tract-housing communities and streets as jammed up as Dick Cheney's black heart. But this small inland community also has what much of the county lacks and craves: genuine culture.
Westminster was once little more than auto yards, small farms and empty lots. Beginning in the 1970s, Vietnamese fleeing the collapse of the Republic of South Vietnam arrived. They transformed the town into the spiritual home of the world's largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam. In 1987, they built the Asian Garden Mall—known to locals as Phuoc Loc Tho—as one of the main attractions. City officials estimate that Little Saigon attracts more than 300,000 Vietnamese-American tourists per year—and it's obvious they come from both sides of the hyphen. Where else outside the old country can someone order tiger testicles from herbal pharmacies to increase virility, deal in pirated designer clothes and CDs, and buy a jade necklace?
Try this experiment: tune your car radio to 106.3 FM, the Voice of Little Saigon. Slowly drive Bolsa Avenue between Brookhurst and Magnolia. Sixty percent of Westminster residents are white, but the sights, smells and sounds will convince you that you are in a distant Asian locale.
Visitors should not be shocked to see the yellow-and-red-striped flag of old South Vietnam flying defiantly at shops. The war ended more than a quarter century ago, but many older local Vietnamese still feel that defeat deeply and express their anger periodically at the slightest hint that someone in the community isn't sufficiently anti-communist.
Much to the frustration of the older generation, younger Vietnamese—particularly those born in the U.S.—cringe at the mention of the war, tend to support Democrats when they vote, and prefer English as their daily language. They are not interested in Ho Chi Minh, Henry Kissinger or Dien Bien Phu. They are frequently interested in hip-hop, Hondas and high tech. Corporate America hasn't overlooked this point: Little Saigon is sprinkled with huge roadside billboards targeting local Vietnamese-American yuppies.
Hi-Tek Video Store. Speaking of the younger, apolitical generation in Little Saigon, the one thing that can get the kids to hit the street is a businessman dumb enough to hang a photograph of Ho Chi Minh inside his video store on Bolsa Avenue. The store's not there anymore, of course; it never did any business after the massive demonstrations that saw up to 10,000 protesting Vietnamese-Americans outside its doors in early 1999. The store owner in question, Truong Van Tran, also flew a Vietnamese flag—what's called the "communist flag" in Little Saigon—inside his store. On several occasions, police had to escort Tran from his store to avoid almost certain parking-lot lynchings. Finally, Tran called police to the store to respond to an alleged burglary attempt. Inside his attic, police found more than 100 looped-together VCRs and thousands of pirated tapes. Tran was arrested, appealed, lost and served 90 days at the Orange County jail this summer.
Meanwhile, video piracy is alive and well inside Little Saigon. Even as Tran sat behind bars, the Weekly surveyed five nearby video stores, all but one of which appeared to offer customers only videos that were pirated. Of course, Westminster police deny they arrested Tran simply to sweep a troublesome business owner out of the way and end the largest and longest-running instance of civil unrest in the city's history. 9550 Bolsa Ave.
Nguoi Viet. Little Saigon is the county's busiest media center. Dozens of newspapers, bookstores, and radio and television stations operate in a five-square-mile radius. First published as a four-page weekly in 1978, Nguoi Viet (Vietnamese People) is the granddaddy of all Little Saigon newspapers. Yen Do, the newspaper's former publisher, is the iconoclast who dictates how the other Vietnamese-American media outlets handle the news. His newspaper was firebombed for seemingly progressive economic ideas—he advocated free trade—but what is a refugee community without radical war vets who want to take back the homeland? 14891 Moran St., (714) 892-9414.Little Saigon Radio. Turn the dial to 1480 AM and listen to news, cooking recipes and advice on health. Most Vietnamese-Americans use the radio not just for entertainment but also to learn how to function in American society. It remains one of the most authoritative ways that the community receives information. 15781 Brookhurst St., Ste. 101, (714) 918-4444.Tony Lam. Lam is the nation's first Vietnamese-American elected official. If you don't want to meet him while he sits stonefaced on the first and third Wednesdays of each month at Westminster's City Council meetings, why not go to his Vien Dong (Far East) restaurant? Located in nearby Garden Grove, the councilman's restaurant focuses on traditional Northern Vietnamese dishes like banh tom (a shrimp fritter) and bun rieu, a rice vermicelli noodle soup with ground crab and tomato broth. Feeling braver? Go for the bun oc (rice vermicelli noodles with escargot). 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-8253.Asian Garden Mall. There isn't much of a garden here, but this two-story complex is full of Vietnamese shops selling food, clothes, music, medicines, books and Buddhist artifacts. You'll also see lots of old South Vietnamese soldiers—sans sidearms—hanging out, with cigarettes dangling from their lips. When you're done shopping, relax with one of the many Vietnamese dessert drinks offered in the mall. If you're looking to explore what Little Saigon offers in one quick trip (and we don't recommend this), go here. 9039 Bolsa Ave.
Alerto's. The best 24-hour place in Westminster to eat greasy Mexican food. The portions are ridiculously huge, and nothing costs more than $6. Order the carne asada if you can handle a two-pound plate of savory seasoned beef with all the fixings. We usually stick with the breakfast burrito—nothing settles the stomach after a hard night of clubbing like a Frisbee-sized flour tortilla stuffed with eggs, chorizo, potatoes and cheese. 15681 Brookhurst St., (714) 775-9550.Uyen Thy Quan. This may be the best restaurant in Little Saigon at four in the morning. If you get lost in the menu, ask your server for help. This place is very accommodating. 9600 Bolsa, Ste. M, (714) 839-1166.
Mi La Cay. Mi (yellow rice noodles) are actually Chinese, but many Vietnamese places have incorporated them on the menu. Funny how 1,000 years of colonization can do that. Mi La Cay is continuously one of the most popular restaurants in the genre of mi cookery. Bring your appetite, and order a heaping bowl of Mi La Cay dac biet (the house special). This noodle soup is served with roasted chicken, fried shrimp and pork. 8924 Bolsa Ave., (714) 891-8775.Kim Su. The coolest place to eat lunch—traditional Chinese, great dim sum (similar to hors d'oeuvres and usually consisting of a variety of dumplings, steamed dishes and desserts), but we usually go for the lunch specials like sweet and sour pork, broccoli beef, and kung pao chicken. We like this place for two reasons: (1) you can mix and share food so easily, and (2) we are cheap bastards, usually paying no more than $6 per person. But avoid this place at dinner, when the same plate will triple in cost but not size. 10526 Bolsa Ave., (714) 554-6261. Thanh My. A longtime favorite of both locals and visitors, this blindingly bright, informal restaurant offers a huge selection of Vietnamese pho (pronounced ph-ah) as well as rice and noodle dishes. It is consistently busy, especially late at night. 9553 Bolsa, (714) 531-9540.Coffeehouses. These are where the business gets done: over cups of blacker-than-black coffee or heady tea. Mind you, we're talking about the real business—not the stuff that appears in the Orange County Business Journal. Business, if you take our meaning. A few years ago, the Westminster PD (which takes our meaning) tried to push through new coffeehouse regulations—brighter interior lighting, no tinted windows, shorter operating hours. The regulations went down in flames. Nobody interferes with the business of Little Saigon's coffeehouses. Address? Are you kidding?
Gala Bakery. Was the last time you had a decent baguette when you met that special someone in Paris, walked through the streets of the Left Bank hand in hand, and professed your undying love? What happened? Did you lose touch? Did she cheat on you with a dirty Spaniard? Did he cheat on you with a slutty Canadian? Things happen. Go to Gala Bakery, and order a few fresh loaves of baguettes and some iced caf au lait, and try to remember a time when love was not so cruel. 14570 Brookhurst St., (714) 775-7327.
Little Saigon. Orange County's own Boswell, T. Jefferson Parker—the author of such best-sellers as Laguna Heat—wrote this suspense thriller that apparently didn't thrill everyone. About the "renegade son of a powerful land baron who kidnaps his brother's Vietnamese wife and is plunged into a wealthy family's web of tragic secrets," the book now ranks 1,323,682 on Amazon.com, owing somewhat to reader reviews such as this: "Really, really bad, jingoist, myopic, unthrilling thriller. I usually like T. Jefferson, but I hated this one. Blech!"
The Spy Shop. The CIA helped get us into the Vietnam War, so it's only appropriate that Westminster should have a place to buy assorted weapons and spy gadgets. 14032 Beach Blvd., (714) 899-1155.
Ice Palace. When the Kmart on Springdale went the way of family farms, the Ice Palace people gutted it and installed a rink, boards and glass. Where once a voice beckoned shoppers to the blue light special, Canucks and kids with names like Smith, Nguyen and Rosales work to light the lamp red. Coming out of a nearby bar one night—it had to be 2 a.m.—we found a group of aging adult-leaguers gliding across the pond, working the corners, and generally playing as if Dave Taylor were watching. 13071 Springdale St., (714) 899-7900.
The Flying Whale. One can only imagine the comfort this airborne cetacean overlooking the 405 has given the huddled masses fleeing the filth and degradation of Lakewood, Westchester and points north. Floating above a car dealership, the whale is Orange County's Lady Liberty, promising a new life to those fleeing communities less, um, planned . . . capiche? You think it's a coincidence the whale is white? Grow up! The whale signals that you are entering a new life or, sadly, leaving a happy one. Either way, one thing is certain: we have absolutely no idea what the flying whale is supposed to be selling us. Cars? Other floating whales? Floating whales the size of cars? Floating cars the size of whales? Flan?
Illustration by Bob Aul
DVD PLANET. For film buffs, DVD geeks and Criterion collectors, this is the best place to find what you're looking for. Even those cuts of all cuts, otherwise known as the Criterion collections—are in abundance here. So if you like movies like The Bicycle Thief, or you're one of those cult-movie lovers, or you get off on Kurosawa, or if you can't find the movies you like even in archaic VHS—this is your place! 15251 Beach Blvd., (714) 892-9147. (N. Amorsolo, Long Beach)
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