Photo by Amy TheiligIt's easy to see why Vietnamese continue to romanticize the French more than 50 years after Dien Bien Phu. The answer is there, on a sign in the heart of Little Saigon: Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie, the best French bakery in Orange County.
It's the food, baby. Though the owners are Vietnamese, this business is resolutely Gallic, from the photos of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe on the walls to the mournful chanson that weeps from the speakers. The only vaguely Vietnamese items on the menu are the chicken and pork bánh mìs, hefty nine-inch subs featuring such essential Southeast Asian ingredients as pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, and jalapeño—and those come topped with a slice of cheesy pâté and crammed into a baguette.
Boulangerie Pierre's French simulacrum begins with those baguettes: about a yard long and baked just minutes before you arrived. When you bite through a chunk, its tough crust yields a billowy, steaming center. The taste isn't artificially sweet but wheaty—and slightly, pleasantly bitter. You can eat Boulangerie Pierre's baguette au natural, stuff it with chocolate, dunk it in the shop's mule-kick coffee or spread jam on it.
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Many of the elderly Vietnamese who make up the morning crowd walk out laden with baguettes, but the younger afternoon clients prefer Boulangerie Pierre's other confections. The croissants are the antithesis of the baguettes: fluffy, flaky, light, some gooey with a peppery cheese baked inside. Éclairs are substantial and creamy; the pains come studded with golden raisins or topped with eggy cream and apricots. Tarts—covered in kiwi, blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, and a crescent slice of tangerine—are as outlandish as Carmen Miranda's hats. All of Boulangerie Pierre's pastries are light and only lightly frosted; the sweetness comes from the fruits or cheeses inside. And the cost—no more than three bucks for the most expensive product, a slice of any of their house cakes—is likely to be the deal of your day.
Boulangerie Pierre's best sweet bet, though, is the baba au rum: a rum-soaked, fruit-topped mini-cake and not a mistranslated Who song. Alcohol-based pastries are usually more novelty than gourmet item—you order one under the laughable premise you might get a buzz. This baba au rum's bread, though, is spongy and absolutely drenched in the sugary liqueur. You can feel the alcohol enter your central nervous system with one, and you'll get tipsy if you eat two. A teenage wasteland, indeed.
LA BOULANGERIE PIERRE & PATISSERIE, 14352 BROOKHURST ST., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 418-9098.