Born in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, chef and college teacher Haley Nguyen immigrated to the United States in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. Sponsored by a Catholic church in Pennsylvania, her family landed in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, near New Albany.
After majoring in organization and human behavior at Indiana University, she moved to Colorado and worked in retail, then as a flight attendant. “I wanted to travel and see the world,” she explains. She opened a Vietnamese restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, and when her then-husband transferred to California, she came with him. In 2008, she opened Xanh Bistro (16161 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, 714-531-2030; www.xanhbistro.com).
Nguyen is a hardcore evangelist for great food. Besides running her restaurant, she teaches international cooking, baking and pastry at both Saddleback and Cypress colleges, writes for the YammyU food website, bottles her own line of nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce); gives guided tours of Little Saigon and is setting up a guided, food-oriented trip to Vietnam for next year. It’s not surprising that Nguyen’s survival tips for OC revolve around food.
1. Eat Pho.
Nguyen swears by the oft-overlooked but well-established Pho Nguyen Hue. “It’s the oldest pho shop in Little Saigon,” Nguyen says. Her order is usually one of the bowls of pho ga, with various cut-up pieces of chicken in a golden broth. “It’s similar to Northern-style pho,” she says. 10487 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 839-8916; www.phonhue.com.
2. Go Wine-Tasting.
“I love Healdsburg and Paso Robles,” says Nguyen of her wine-tasting journeys, “but Temecula is closer and has some wines that are accessible to everyone.” She normally goes for classical pairings, but occasionally, a red sneaks onto the table with seasoned fish. “I like to drink seasonally,” she says. “Big Cabs in the winter and light whites such as Pinot Grigio in the summer.” When she can’t get to the vineyards, she heads for Hi-Time Wine Cellars. 250 Ogle St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463; www.hitimewine.net.
3. Shop for Produce.
“The [farmers’] market in Fullerton has a lot of Hmong specialties,” explains Nguyen, “but one of my employees has an organic Vietnamese garden with 50 kinds of vegetables, including taro root and fresh turmeric.” Back yards across OC are full of surprises, she says, so get to know your neighbors. 801 W. Valencia Dr., Fullerton. Open every Wed., 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
4. Find the “Secret” Grocery Stores.
There aren’t many trips to Albertsons for Nguyen, who prefers the large Vietnamese markets such as Saigon OC Supermarket, Green Farms Market and the Westminster Superstore. “I don’t know if I’m just ill-prepared,” she says with a laugh, “but I’m always at the market.” Saigon OC Supermarket, 15471 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 531-9800. Green Farms Market, 16042 Magnolia St., Fountain Valley, (714) 843-1818. Westminster Superstore, 15440 Beach Blvd., Westminster, (714) 891-6288.
5. Discover More Ethnic Food.
OC’s ethnic enclaves are the highlight of OC, according to Nguyen. “People in OC should get out and explore,” she says. “Try not to take cultural differences personally. It’s a feeling of realness; it’s not a setup.” She loves to pop into different stores and restaurants in Santa Ana, Garden Grove’s Korean district or Irvine’s Persian area.
6. Answer the Sugarcane Question.
“There’s a house in Westminster that has an entire front yard full of sugarcane, nothing but sugarcane,” Nguyen says. During the summer, when the cane is ripe, she goes to the Vietnamese markets, which feature machines outside the doors to juice the sugarcane for a real taste of Vietnam.
7. Pick Up Fruit.
“There’s fruit all over the place,” Nguyen exults. When she goes out walking in her neighborhood, she comes back with banana blossoms, loquats, figs, yellow dates and purslane. “Sometimes people don’t know they have this great fruit,” she says.
8. Head for the Beach.
While not a big beachgoer, Nguyen loves to travel down to the coast for a different reason. People don’t connect enough with the food available in our own back yards, she says. “If you put a bit of chicken skin on a stick, you can catch delicious crunchy crabs in Dana Point Harbor. I love mackerel, too, and Vietnamese people bring in a lot of mackerel from the Huntington pier.”
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9. Support the Performing Arts.
Nguyen is a big fan of the local art scene. “I love to go to the Orange County Performing Arts Center and see the symphony and the plays they put on,” she says. You can also find her at UC Irvine for slightly less formal performances. Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2746; www.ocpac.org. UC Irvine, Campus and West Peltason drives, Irvine; www.uci.edu.
In her rare downtime, Nguyen goes to King’s Fish House for a drink at the bar and maybe a snack or two. Vodka is the chef’s poison, and Nguyen drinks hers in a Cosmo. “I’m still hunting for that great margarita, though,” she says. Various locations; www.kingsfishhouse.com.