What's in a Name?
Finding the real Com Tam Tran Quy Cap
Little Saigon's Bolsa Avenue is littered with restaurants like Com Tam Tran Quy Cap—eateries that seem genetically identical to each other. Menus feature the common mainstays of pho, broken rice dishes and the vermicelli-noodle salad called bun. Service is curt, prices are low, and cash is the only form of payment accepted.
But with Com Tam Tran Quy Cap, the similarities also extend to a case of brand confusion. At least two other restaurants in the area share the same name and serve similar dishes, though none are related. How to pick it out from the pack? Easy. For one thing, it's geographically removed by at least a few blocks from the bustle of Bolsa, housed under its own stand-alone building in Fountain Valley. Another distinguishing mark: they spell it "Quy," not "Qui," as the others do.
Regardless, the restaurant packs 'em in, building on its reputation of cleanliness, good prices and flavorful food. And every meal comes with a complimentary gelatin dessert.
As the name implies, Com Tam Tran Quy Cap specializes in com tam—plates built from the ground up with broken rice, the stubby, shattered rejects from the threshing process that were traditionally regarded as cheap food for the peasant class. Now broken rice is seen as a delicacy, and for good reason: it's chewier, firmer and more interesting than regular rice. (The secret is to deliberately undercook the grains.)
Two bowls of liquid accompany every com tam meal. One's a broth with simple boiled greens. The other is nuoc cham, a seasoned fish sauce that's to be spooned over everything you eat. This savory, vinegary yet sugary brew is to com tam as syrup is to pancakes.
Then there are the proteins, which exist in a dizzying array of mix-and-match choices. Tau hu ky is made of shrimp that's ground to a light-as-mousse paste, wrapped in tofu skin, then deep-fried and sliced to look like a golden catcher's mitt. Shredded jellied pig skin called bi eats like noodles, while cha is a thick wedge of homemade egg quiche. Com Tam Tran Quy Cap also offers shrimp skewered on sticks and basted with a barbecue glaze.
Or you can go for strips of beef or pork—or even a whole pork chop—deeply marinated to be as sweet as sugar, then grilled to a smoky char. Fried egg rolls are constructed out of rice paper for an extra-crunchy crackle and a chewier chew. But the tastiest of all com tam companions has to be the Chinese sausage called lap xuong—cut into stout cylinders the length of your fingertips, they taste like the purest distillation of the hog.
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Even if you don't get the com tam, try the house-special fried rice: Flecked with morsels of lap xuong and wok-tossed, it's one of the best plates of fried rice in the county. Along with that dish, the "unbroken" rice gets a whole menu section of its own, paired with such varied offerings as a Korean barbecue short rib sizzling on a hot plate to slabs of steamed salmon steak, garnished with slivers of ginger, soy and scallions. Both are worth ordering if only because they aren't typically seen on Vietnamese menus.
As mentioned, Com Tam Tran Quy Cap also does pho, and it's a good bowl, served with not only the typical sides of lime, Thai basil, jalapeños and bean sprouts, but also the rarely seen sawtooth herb. The restaurant's version of bun cha Ha Noi is faithful as well, with every detail honored, down to how the grilled pork and the dense ground-meat patty come out soaking in a bowl of fish sauce. But even better are the banh hoi—floppy rectangles woven from rice vermicelli noodles to resemble tiny bath mats that are sprinkled with chopped peanuts and fried shallots, then topped with the same varieties of protein as the com tam. 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.
Of course, you've been around Little Saigon and seen it all before, so you already knew that.
Com Tam Tran Quy Cap, 16175 Harbor Blvd., Fountain Valley, (714) 418-1333. Open Thurs.-Tues. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $10-$20, food only.