We all know pho tastes great when it's cold. But it's too darn hot right now for pho. Fortunately Vietnamese cuisine has its share of dishes and desserts tailor made for summer. Here's a few of this critic's favorites and where to get them in Orange County.
Banh Beo at Quan Hop
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 at Quan Hop 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 explosive sea mines. To eat one, 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 milky-white substance is not unlike a very dense rice noodle, but with a clean, light, firm texture that's not at all starchy or pasty. You will want to order other delicious things at Quan Hop, which is a Hue cuisine specialist, but start with this.
Banh Beo and Banh Bot Loc Combo at Ngu Binh
At Ngu Binh, a menu with English translations and pictures supplements the previously all-Vietnamese single-sheet list, offering about 18 dishes. Most are rearrangements of rice-flour batter, the chosen medium. The starch is to this Hue cuisine specialist as semolina is to the Italians. Steamed in tiny saucers, it’s called banh beo. Spread as thin as film and used as noodle wraps, it’s called banh uot. And that’s just two iterations. But then there's the banh bot loc dumplings, which are made with tapioca flour instead of rice. They're translucent, resembling squat jellyfish with shrimp-y brains at dead-center with a chewy texture similar to old bubble gum. And when you get both the banh be and the banh bot loc together on the same plate, the competing textures duel in your mouth.
Banh Cuon at Tan Hoang Huong
The banh cuon at Tan Hoang Huong in Tustin is laid out next to register, wrapped in plastic and offered in about three varieties. The one you want is the complete kit sold for about $5 and includes crisp fried onion, a side of julienned vegetables, slices of cha lua (Vietnamese bologna), a fried tofu, and a nouc cham dipping sauce. To eat it, you dip the meat, crisp-cool veggies, but especially the translucent parcels of the banh cuon into the fish sauce, slurping all the way. Since banh cuon is typically eaten for breakfast, Tan Huang Huong's stock tends to run out the later you go in the day. But you can usually score one for a light lunch. If you're feeling peckish, banh cuon is actually a great first course before tucking into one of Tan Huang Huong's banh mis, which, by the way, are also a great summertime meal.
Banh Hoi at Com Tam Tran Quy Cap
The banh hoi at Com Tam Tran Quy Cap are floppy rectangles woven from rice vermicelli noodles to resemble tiny bath mats. They're sprinkled with chopped peanuts and fried shallots, then topped with the same varieties of protein as the com tam the restaurant serves as their actual specialty. But since it's partnered with a bowl of lettuce and herbs, banh hoi functions more like an appetizer crossed with a salad. The star of the dish is that starch, which has the chewy texture of tripe and the absorptive powers of a sponge. To eat one, you wrap a swatch around a morsel of meat and dunk it in fish sauce.
Banh Mi at Banh Mi Cho Cu
The bakery, as with most things noteworthy in Little Saigon, is crammed between a seedy liquor store and a laundromat. It's raison d'être, of course, is the banh mi. The dac biet, or house special, is a combo of meats (mostly pork) stuffed inside a crusty baguette. Though it is like Banh Mi Che Cali's sandwich in many ways, the banh mi scholar will detect a few differences. The cucumbers are cut crosswise rather than lengthwise. The jalapenos and the usual carrot and daikon pickles are applied with a lighter touch. Also, no measurable amount of mayo is used. What you taste is predominately the bread and the meat. You chew the gelatin jiggle of the pork fat from the slice of roast pig. You perk up at the salty funk of liver pâté. And you relish the smoothness of the white Vietnamese ham called cha lua. These are layers of pork-on-pork action, hugged by the pillow of what could be one of the best baguettes in Little Saigon—a bread with the lightness of helium, a crusty crumb that sheds itself all over your shirt, and a refinement that plays against the rustic, uncensored personality of the cold cuts.
Che at Banh Mi Che Cali
Banh Mi Che Cali is the best and possibly the cheapest place for banh mi, those Vietnamese sandwiches made of crusty French bread and stuffed with all manner of meats, pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro sprigs, and fiery jalapenos. But did you know that this modest Little Saigon chain also sells delectable Vietnamese desserts too? Yes! It's true! Che, pronounced "ch-eah" (rhymes with "Yeah!"), is the general term for a sweet dish or dessert, which in Vietnam, is usually soupy and can sometimes contain sweetened coconut milk, some sort of starch, fruits, jellies, or all of the above. Some che is served chilled while others, hot. Banh Mi Che Cali's selection boasts an eye-popping palette of colors usually reserved for a Nickelodeon cartoon or a psychedelic head trip. Slimer green, bubble gum pink, vibrant sports car red — these are artificial colors, but the flavors are genuine.
Fruit Tart at Le Croissant Dore
There was a point in time when it seemed Le Croissant Dore didn't realize how popular their tarts were. They'd run out prematurely. I remember having to push my way through the sea of people crammed at their little doorway, only to find out that they sold the last one before I even got to the counter. And it wasn't yet noon. Now they seem to have an endless supply, as if they possessed one of those bottomless magical bags Hermione Granger had in Harry Potter. You needn't call in for a reservation these days. They seem to anticipate that at any moment in time, someone is in need of one of these tarts. And trust me, you do. Set on a crumbly crust, these fruit tarts are flaky, layered with a cool, eggy custard you could eat on its own if you had the chance, but is actually the base on which the fresh fruit are arranged. A final shellacking of shiny goo makes the strawberries, kiwis, pineapple, oranges, and grapes glisten like mirrors. And no matter what time of the year you decide to pick one up, the pastry will always look the same. No it's not seasonal, but it is dependable, and relative cheap to boot.
Goi Mit at Quan Hy
Quan Hy's goi mit is jackfruit salad with bits of shrimp and diced pork in chewy clear, gelatin-packed pieces attached to slivers of greyish flesh. The dressing is tangy and herbs such as lemongrass and and basil only add to its freshness. Best of all are the planks of light-as-air rice crackers which surrounds the salad mound like life rafts. Depending on the eater, they function as either crouton or scoop.
Nem Nuong Cuon 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. 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 that 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, its ingredients are a mystery. It's possibly the most guarded secret recipe in the enclave, perhaps OC. For sure, there's garlic, a little chile paste, maybe sugar. Magic and sorcery? More than likely.
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Three-Colored Che Drink at Thach Che Hien Khanh
Thach Che Hien Khanh has all kinds of che. But when it's hot, you just want something you can suck through a straw. Ask for the most colorful drink and the woman behind the counter ladles in onyx black tapioca pearls first, then slippery, slime green squiggles, followed by some crunchy, faux pomegranate seeds. Crushed ice goes on top, some syrup, and finally a nice, generous pour of coconut milk. The white liquid snakes down through the ingredients, and fills up the cup to the brim. Before consumption, the drink must be thoroughly mixed to distribute the sweetener and milk. With the first sip comes a comforting surge of coconut milk. It's creamy sweet with the lightest touch of saltiness. Then as the solid pieces of the concoction travel up the straw, there's chewing involved. The boba has the bouncy bite-resistance of bubble-gum, the red bits are crunchy like water chestnuts, and the green stuff wiggles around in your mouth like a worm.