In creating this list, I asked myself this question: Where would I take out-of-town visitors to explore the wonders of our Little Saigon? And what would I have them eat? In all honesty, I came up with more than you see below. My notepad is filled with at least a dozen more tasty bits I didn't have room for. Little Saigon has too much great food and too much ground to cover.
To keep it simple, I narrowed it down to what I think is an essential item from each place I mention (or simply what I personally seek out). In the mix, I have a produce stand, a dessert joint, a sandwich shop, and of course plenty of noodle soups.
But if you asked Gustavo, Dave, Shuji, Anne Marie and Niyaz, I'm sure they'd come up with a different set of recommendations altogether; and so would you. So share them! I challenge you to limit your list to ten!
10. Chuoi Chien (Fried Bananas) at Thach Che Hien Khanh
Thach Che Hien Khanh is the preeminent purveyor of all things sweet and dessert in Little Saigon. There are lines even when there shouldn't be, in the middle of the afternoon. People patiently queue up to order from steam trays filled with the sugary, the bean-based and the sticky-rice-anchored. What you order gets piled into take-out containers, sold and then consumed for later. But they also make one of the best fried bananas. They will be stacked out in the open, sold two for a dollar. Biting into one will be like that first tap of a spoon on a creme brulee: there's just a slight resistance that will quickly give way to the blubbery custard beneath. A crunchy crust of caramel makes every part of this fried fruit club perennially crispy even after sitting there out in the elements for probably at least an hour since its birth.
9. Rambutan From Ba Tu Trai Cay Ngon
Ba Tu Trai Cay Ngon sells fruit and produce indigenous of Southeast Asia--all that is weird and wonderful but are otherwise hard to come by the further north you go from the equator. Some are piled in neat pyramids. Some hang above your head in pre-weighed plastic bags. Others, like jackfruit and durian, are safely kept at waist level. These infamous fruits, sporting spikes as menacing as medieval weaponry, have been known to kill men when they make their free fall from trees. Your quarry, should it be the season, is the fruit called rambutan, which is as weird as the rest of the lot, but perhaps even weirder. As "rambut" means hair in Indonesian, the golf ball-sized fruit are indeed hairy (furry, even) resembling the dangling testicles of a red, alien creature. If you're lucky and they're available, you can probably haggle the price down. It will be expensive. To eat them, dig into each fruit with both thumbs. And like a Russian nesting doll, the two leathery outer hemispheres will split and separate, revealing the white translucent flesh of the fruit beneath. Grip the fruit by your front teeth and pop the thing out of its socket. As you maneuver it in your mouth, scrape the juicy meat from the almond-like pit. The texture of rambutan, for those who haven't had it, is exactly like a lychee. But the flavor is tangier, sharper, livelier, just like the Little Saigon street scene you'll buy it from.
8. Tofu at Dong Phuong Tofu
You know those white, brick-sized tofu blocks you see at Asian markets all around Orange County? Ever wonder where they're made? Well, it's here: Dong Phuong Tofu factory in Little Saigon, which, in my opinion, is the best supplier of this wonder curd, local or otherwise. It's true that when you buy it at a supermarket, the prices aren't marked up by much; buying it at Dong Phuong won't save you more than a few cents. But you should still buy it here anyway. The reason is freshness. The tofu will not be days or hours old, but minutes, sometimes even seconds from the tofu press. In fact, it's so fresh, it's steaming, scalding to the touch, almost virginal in its purity. What do you do with it? Anything. Everything. Dong Phuong's tofu is merely a springboard to culinary greatness. Forget about it healthiness. That's a given. It's just a great ingredient. Brine them in a mixture of garlic, salt and water and deep fry them until they float like golden rafts. Use them in stir fries, in soup, make ice cream. Whatever! The world is your tofu.
7. Bun Rieu (Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup with Crab) at Quan Hop
A good bowl of bun rieu is rare find. It's slightly pink, and more apt to be sipped and savored than chugged. If pho is beer, bun rieu the Vietnamese noodle soup equivalent of a girly drink. The noodles will caress the tongue in lustrous, feathery wisps; you don't chew it, you just let it melt. The broth it swims in is delicate and clear, but rimmed with chili red rouge. Shrimp--chopped up and reformed into figure eight patties--are as pink as naked skin. Nubs of sea snail chew softly with a slight crunch while cuts of fried tofu keep things grounded. Then there's meat from a crab, packed loosely to disintegrate in your mouth as gently as a kiss. Floating in the bowl, a perky set of boiled tomatoes leaks juice into the soup and as you bite into them. And if you kept your eyes shut, you could mistake the cube of congealed pork blood for silken tofu or pudding.
6. Nem Noung Rolls (Grilled Pork Patty Spring Rolls) at Brodard
This is the one item that has seeded Brodard's success and the reason there's always a line. The nem nuong cuon is a spring roll to end all spring rolls. Inside a wetted cylinder of rice paper hides lettuce, a slender piece of deep fried egg roll skin, cucumber, and nem nuong, a ruddy concoction made of pork or shrimp which isn't quite a sausage and not really SPAM, but a combo of the two. A lot of places in Little Saigon can construct a fine nem nuong cuon, but only Brodard seems to have perfected the sauce that makes it sing. Halfway between soup and dip, what's in it is a mystery. It's possibly the most guarded secret recipe in the enclave, perhaps OC. For sure there's garlic, a little chili paste, maybe sugar. Magic and sorcery? More than likely.
5. Bo 7 Mon (7 Courses of Beef) at Thien An
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.
4. Banh Mi (Baguette Sandwiches) at Banh Mi Che Cali
After you graduate from Lee's Sandwiches' rudimentary course in Vietnamese sandwiches, come to Banh Mi Che Cali for your advanced training. Even with inflation, the price for one of the best banh mi sandwiches in OC will be lower than the cheapest fast-food footlong you see advertised on TV and by sign-twirlers. The Buy-Two-Get-One-Free deal--the way everyone buys sandwiches--is always offered, working out to somewhere around $5 for three sandwiches. These overstuffed, two-fisted hoagies begin with rice-flour-imbued breads that bite with an assertive crunch and a crumb as light as a cloud. Start with the dac biet, the house special, in which such cold cuts as headcheese, Vietnamese ham and cha lua are layered on thick, tucked among a schmear of liver paté, cilantro, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon. For the other two in your threesome, opt for the thit nuong, where you get ruddy strips of well-marinated grilled pork; and then the chicken, where you'll find the meat shredded into a hash prone to absorbing the squirts of Maggi sauce and the slathering of the creamy house mayo.
3. Banh Beo (Rice Flour Pudding with Dried Shrimp) at Quan Hy
Banh beo is simply rice flour batter steamed in miniature saucers and sprinkled with minced shrimp meat, diced scallions and fried caramelized bits of onion. An order comes in eight single serving shots, arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid on a square dish. Holding the center square is a bowl of sauce with floating rounds of diced Thai chilis--bobbing menaces you should treat like sea mines. To eat one, take a teaspoon to task and splash on a few drops of the golden sauce onto each saucer, then scoop out the rice cake as you would a cup of dessert gelatin. The opaque and milky white substance is not unlike a very dense rice noodle, but with a clean, light, and firm texture that's not at all starchy or pasty. You will want to order other delicious things at Quan Hy which is a Hue cuisine specialist, but start with this--it's kind of the gateway drug.
2. Com Tam (Broken Rice Plates) at Com Tam Thuan Kieu
Broken rice, or com tam, used to be considered discards from the threshing process, the cheapest rice meant for the poorest people. But alas, com tam turned out to be the good stuff. The smaller bits of rice cook to a more interesting chew than the whole grain. Now there are restaurants that feature it as the centerpiece of a dish, eaten with simply-grilled meats, fresh cut vegetables, and a bowl of sweetened fish sauce called nuoc cham. Virtually every restaurant and pho joint in Little Saigon has a version of it, but few actually specialize in it like Com Tam Thuan Kieu. Out front, toothless, chain-smoking old men sit and chat, no doubt reminiscing about a time in recent history when Ho Chi Minh City was still called Saigon. Inside, the menu--which features broken rice and meat pairings in sixty-four permutations--is dizzying. The specialty of the house is #7 and #8, two dishes which takes the name of the restaurant itself. Take either one and be prepared to feast: these rice plate masterpieces are topped with seven mouth-watering items heaped onto a generous mound of rice...broken rice, of course.
1. Pho (Beef Noodle Soup) at Pho Thanh Lich
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The room smells of the sour tang of dried mops, mildewed dish rags and sweat. There are what appear to be Christmas garlands left up from holidays long forgotten. Around you, like-minded thrifty souls gather, the restaurant filling up the later it gets. Here, like nowhere else, there's the feeling of community among strangers, a shared experience of something good, something special: the pho. Here is pho as pho is meant to be: cheap, hot and good. Thanh Lich's soup is a wondrous elixir of clearness, ladled out from vats as tall as a desk chair, a pot simmered long and slow, inside the vessel is a liquid lovingly looked after. It's poured scalding onto the clumped mound of noodles at a palate-singing temperature. Deep is the flavor, a tang, a freshness, a beef juice diluted to a brew as invigorating to slurp as the beach air is to breathe. The whole bowl tells the story of beef, with the broth the constant narrator and the cuts of cattle, from the very tender to the very, very tender, an indispensable character list of protagonists. Tai, rare steak, just melts. Beef tendons get boiled down to an aspic-like gel. And the tripe tastes as tripe should taste, with some of its barnyard stink still distinguishable. The toppings, they almost don't really matter. Bean sprouts, the saw-tooth herb, basil, lemon and jalapeño become chatter, noise, interruptions to a symphony that already has the harmony in place. Above all, this soup doesn't inhibit the kind of thirst lesser pho broths do, a sign of its uncompromising pedigree and lack of MSG, a known and oft-abused shortcut that's unthinkable here.