No we haven't done this list yet. Yes, we did a 10 Essential Little Saigon Restaurants list a month ago, which included a lot of Westminster restaurants along with some from Garden Grove; but there are so many essential places inside the city that this list HAS NO OVERLAP with that list!
Do expect Vietnamese restaurants, though. In fact, all on this new list are Vietnamese restaurants, because if you aren't going to Westminster to eat Vietnamese food, you're doing it wrong. But as there are many facets to a diamond, there are many facets to Westminster's Vietnamese eateries. In the list you'll see a restaurant that exists solely because of price point, a noodle joint that doesn't serve pho, a place where you can feast on French cuisine, and another where you can have plate of good ol' steak and eggs.
You got your own Westminster must-go restaurants? Share 'em in the comments!
This postage-stamp-size of a place only has, at most, four tables. But Dat Thanh's nem nuong rolls are wonderful--every bit the worthy challenger to Brodard's. They make the nem nuong in-house, of course. The chewy, ruddy, half-cylinder cut lengthwise can be compared to a sausage, though it isn't one. It can be said it's kind of like luncheon meat, though it isn't that either. It sports a peppery bite, a tactile and playful texture that bounces back up like a spring-loaded hot dog. But above all you taste the honest, hand-made care behind each porky construct; the Zen-simplicity and translucency of the skin-tight wetted rice paper. There are some noted differences to the Brodard roll. The tucked-in twirled cigar of deep fried egg roll skin is thinner here. And cilantro-averse people should be aware that Dat Thanh's rolls contain chopped bits of the herb mixed in with the lettuce. And then there's the warm, pinkish, thick dipping medium; the nem nuong roll's life-force; the ambrosial liquid that has become, at least in Little Saigon, the secret-sauce of secret-sauces. Brodard's nem nuong sauce has intrigued and beguiled the masses more than anything else, a recipe more guarded than nuclear launch codes. And here it is cracked: Dat Thanh's is everything Brodard's formula is, except spicier, tangier and less sugary, with all of the magic.
There's no other way to say it: Lua Bistrot is way too sleek for Little Saigon. Among the neon-lit declarations of tackiness, Lua sticks out like a polished Porsche in a lot full of subcompacts. The restaurant looks good enough for a James Bond-style rendezvous with a smoldering Russian spy. Yet when you look at the prices, you realize how well the place does indeed fit into a neighborhood full of discount noodle joints. This is princely food that's sold at a pauper's price. A fist-sized hunk of filet mignon with its own à-la-minute pan sauce is served with thick, garlic-festooned fries, salad and a fried egg for less than $15. Most everything else-from wok-tossed cubes of beef with onions to fried chicken with rice to com tam with Vietnamese- barbecue pork chops called suong nuong-are even cheaper than that. They've stopped giving out free crème brûlées after their grand opening, but the desserts are still cheap enough so that 007 can put more martinis on MI6's expense budget.
As with any Vietnamese place, order the Dac Biet (which translates to "house special"). In the case of Mi La Cay, this means a big bowl of mi, which is a wheat-based, egg noodle. So don't ask for pho. This is a Chinese Vietnamese noodle house; and as such, specializes in broths more nourishing than amniotic fluid, made from pork, sweetened with rock sugar, and smacking of umami (probably from MSG). Atop the bowl, you'll find torn lettuce leaves, pieces of tender boiled hog, crispy fried cracklings, and a cut of chicken hacked off from a whole fried bird, still on the bone. The latter speaks of the Chinese-ness of the dish. The Chinese believe (and rightly so) that meat on the bone is better, more succulent. As for the fried, breaded shrimp that also floats in the soup? It tastes like cast-offs from Long John Silver's; but still, they're a welcome add-on, especially when dolloped with Sriracha.
Start with an order of banh beo chen. It comes in 10 single-serving shots, stacked like mahjong tiles on an orange cafeteria tray so flimsy it warps under the weight. To eat it, take a teaspoon, splash on a few golden drops of fish sauce, and then scoop out the silver-dollar-sized rice cakes as you would cups of dessert gelatin. Then move on to the finest bun bo hue in Little Saigon. A floating, fire-alarm-red oil slick accounts for the first few millimeters of the broth. This incendiary film clings to every strand of the spaghetti-thick rice noodles you fish out of the bowl and coats everything it touches, be it the hand-formed pork cakes, the pork blood cubes, the tendon-y sliced beef brisket or the now-throbbing insides of your mouth.
The name says it all: Nha Hang $1.99 Restaurant serves most of its meals for $1.99. We're talking rice with grilled meat and noodle soups with plenty of toppings. They do charge for water, but when you've already made out like a criminal, go ahead and splurge a few extra dollars on iced coffee. If you sit in the back where the speakers blare, you can forget about having that romantic heart-to-heart. But really, by the time you've grown the balls to take a date to The $1.99 Restaurant, you should already be past the getting-to-know-you part of the relationship. The servers, who seem immune to the aural assault, are craggy old men, gruff in appearance and demeanor. Every crease on their faces speaks more about them than they ever could or would tell you. Conversation and interaction with them will be brief. They're there long enough to take your order and later, to drop off the check.
Pho 54 in Westminster is a pho palace that's a Little Saigon standard. Since they're open late, the humble beef noodle soup is hot, starchy fuel for your nocturnal activities. But the most convincing reason to consider the Westminster Pho 54 before Denny's or Norms is economic. Scribbled on a whiteboard, the daily specials are select meals that get discounted to prices even the most generous happy hour can't match. They're rotated daily but can include a whole deep-fried fish fillet with rice and salad or, best of all, the seafood pho, a hot-and-sour soup trough teeming with all types of creatures from the life aquatic.
Quan Hop is the smaller, more intimate little sister to Quan Hy. You go here for Central Vietnamese food, cuisine 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. And bun rieu, a pink, crab-festooned noodle soup with wisps of noodle. Unlike Quan Hy, pho is served here, and what a glorious bowl it is!
For every French entrée here, there's a Vietnamese doppelganger. The bouillabaisse has a Southeast Asian cousin in lau hai san Song Long, a grandiose seafood soup in its own right. The boeuf bourguignon is countered by bo kho, Vietnamese beef stew. Get the escargot for sure. Greased in parsley-flecked garlic butter, Song Long's snails come equipped with the expected hardware: a dimpled dish, a skinny fork and a gripping tool to grasp the slippery shells. It is imperative you ask for more bread to sop up what puddles in those dimples, no matter how much hand waving it takes. Song Long's halved hoagie-style baguettes crackle with a thin crust that shatters and a fluffy cloud of a crumb that wants to float into the ether. It's another testament that the most enduring and endearing legacy from Vietnam's former colonial masters is the bread.
You might think that seven courses of beef (that's bo 7 mon in Vietnamese) is probably six courses too many. And you'd be right if every course weren't so darn tasty and essential to the whole experience. Yes, the bovine bender is a once-in-a-while, special occasion blowout that you'd be silly to have everyday (although with a price of around $15 per person, you technically could). It actually starts quite sanely with a salad, which counts as a course. Granted it's one that includes beef and tripe (that's beef stomach lining), but it's a refreshing and crunchy salad just the same. Second course is DIY. The bo nuong vi are thin slices of beef cooked tableside atop a heated iron dome. Once you finish grilling them, you wrap them around wetted discs of rice paper with veggies for an impromptu burrito. After that, bo nuong mo chai, seasoned-ground-beef spheres encased in caul that self-baste into the juiciest meatballs you'll ever taste. Next come the bo nuong la lop, which are stubby meat stogies rolled inside lalot leaves--a cross between grape leaf and nori. Then comes bo cha dum, a steamed meat cake studded with peas, mushrooms and mercilessly aggressive whole peppercorns. You scoop it up with some shrimp crackers like it were dip. Finally, the meal concludes with a gigantic bowl of soup with clear broth, rice, alphabet pasta, a few strands of rice noodles, cilantro and bits of beef. At this point you might even wish there was an eighth and a ninth course.
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Sitting cross-legged at the epicenter of Little Saigon's meat-loving food culture is Zen Vegetarian, a temple to soy protein. A golden Buddha greets you at the door, but other than this, there are no clues that you just entered a vegetarian restaurant. No self-serving mantras are seen on the walls. The servers don't look like they just ambled out of a Phish concert. The dishes are convincing facsimiles of the real thing. The whole roasted chicken is formed to the shape of a rotisserie bird, complete with wings, breast and drumstick. You'd be clueless of the fact that it's not made of meat until you put it in your mouth and chewed--and maybe, not even then.