You want humility? Try the owners at Dat Thành. For the past year, they've rightfully earned multiple plaudits and newspaper reviews for the nem nuong cuon—barbecue pork sausage spring rolls that our own Dave Lieberman deemed even better than the ones served at Brodard. His blog post set off a frenzied rush to Dat Thành's six tables by eaters eager to see if the upstart truly had bested Little Saigon's longtime champion of the appetizer. Damn straight it did. The freshly ground, just-grilled pork sausage; crispy veggies; pliant rice paper; and delightful surprise of a nub of egg-roll shell inside the mass coalesces into one of Orange County's great snacks—add the multihued, peanut-based dipping sauce that takes six hours to make and the four-for-six-bucks price, and these nem nuong cuons push into the realm of a mandatory OC experience à la Crystal Cove and the Mission.
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The owners know that's why the crowds come—it's listed first on the menu, which features a quartet of them on the cover. Dat Thành could rest on its rightfully earned laurels, but Hai Nguyen works the floor like an MC at a wedding. He never forgets a face (he remembered me even though I hadn't visited in months, distracted as I always am when I'm in the neighborhood by the two-doors-down goat masters Binh Danh), explains all the dishes to newcomers and brushes off any praise. "We're just a family restaurant doing simple meals," he says.
He's not kidding. The entrées are mostly just bún bowls and platters of com tam, the broken-rice dish that's detritus everywhere but Vietnam, where throwaway grains get transformed into sublime combo plates topped with multiple meats and vegetables. And even before you anoint any com tam plate with the homemade fish sauce, a syrupy concoction spiked with sugar cane and chile, the broken rice is spectacular: airy, impossibly moist, buttery, more flavored bubbles than anything plant-based.
Com tam almost doesn't need any toppings, but those are just as delicious: smoky and crunchy barbecued shrimp on a skewer, a sturdy pork chop, even a take on Korean spare ribs that's as sweet and fatty as anything offered in Little Seoul. And throughout, Nguyen will make genuine small talk with you, making you feel as though you were a lifetime benchwarmer getting advice from Stan Musial. Mensch isn't enough to describe him and Dat Thành—more like John the Baptist heralding the Good News in our arid desert of restaurant arrogance.
This review appeared in print as "Nem Nuong Cuon? Nom Nom Nom!"