When H.L. Mencken coined that oft-quoted aphorism “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” he obviously hadn’t met chef Haley Nguyen. The woman does both—and then some. She’s currently a faculty member at Saddleback College and a successful restaurateur; her 2-year-old Fountain Valley eatery, Xanh Bistro, is already beloved among foodies and the press.
On top of all this, Nguyen is also a local food impresario of sorts. She hosts field trips and cooking classes in her restaurant’s kitchen, playing the role of culinary ambassador between Little Saigon and those who wish to learn about its food.
Eat there, and you’ll be schooled in something else, too: upscale Vietnamese need not be faceless or sweeping in the way of S Vietnamese or Brodard Chateau; it can be like Xanh, personal and personable, where you can see the owner herself cooking your food.
Recently, one weeknight, Nguyen singlehandedly cooked our entire meal. Her restaurant was as deserted as its parking lot after the recent storms. We half-expected someone else to sub-in, but there she was, hair tied in a ponytail, framing her delicate, beauty-pageant features, ready to cook for us, her only customers.
Dutifully, she fired up the stove to heat her skillets and then promptly dampened rice-paper squares for our spring-roll appetizers. Next, she carefully drained some blanched water spinach leaves in a sieve before stir-frying them with garlic, all the while tending to an oven and a gurgling deep fryer.
Throughout the evening, we gobbled what she produced, feeling honored that we essentially had her and her too-gorgeous-for-Little-Saigon restaurant all to ourselves. Her Thang Long fish, cut in small white-fleshed fillets, was crusted with a brown sear where it wasn’t tinged sunshiny yellow from turmeric.
She presented it under a green tuft of dill, the meat sizzling on a cast-iron hot plate the size of a saucer and contrasted by a serving tray of cool bun noodles and torn lettuce leaves. Before eating, you bring the hot and cold components together, drip in a few drops of the pungent fermented shrimp sauce, and then follow it by a chomp from the crispy rice cracker.
But what we relished most that cold and clammy night was her soups. All seemed to contain a special ingredient rarely seen outside Vietnam. The hot and sour, apart from being tamarind-based like Filipino sinigang, had chunks of pineapple in it, and most impressively included taro stems, a crisp, celery-like vegetable with a honeycomb matrix of tiny hollow holes in every slice.
In a lip-smacking broth as clear as consommé, another soup featured loose dumpling skin flowing free like fabric blown by a breeze, casting bits of the ground chicken it held in its grasp around the liquid and into our mouths.
The next Saturday night, with her restaurant near capacity, we saw that she enlisted the help of a sous chef. But Nguyen still did most of the orders herself, often with the flames leaping within inches of her face.
Her five-spice-seasoned short rib fell apart with a stern glance, braised slowly to release its beefiness into the liquid, forming the sauce you’ll want to spoon over rice. For her dish of free-range chicken, she steamed the whole bird before flash-frying it, rendering the skins down to a caramelized succulence.
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Nguyen’s pristinely white orange roughy rode on shreds of tart green mango. Her simple tofu stir-fry became a revelation of sugary sweetness and wilted onions. And for her appetizer sampler, chicken skewers had one side kissed to a crispy char, while the other was protected by a flavor-and-fragrance-imparting kaffir lime leaf threaded along with the meat.
On the back page of her menu, traditional bowls of bún and plates of rice are meant to compete with, if not honor, those countless com tam (broken rice) joints in Xanh’s vicinity. Both are topped with the meats that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Vietnamese food should be familiar with. Most notably, there’s Nguyen’s thit nuong, Vietnamese barbecued pork, which has to be the most tender version within Little Saigon’s borders.
Except for pho—noticeably absent, though I didn’t miss it—Nguyen does it all. Take her desserts: the stinky, sulphur odor of the durian fruit haunts her parfait, while her bread pudding is one of the most elegant I’ve had in a while. Three softly pliant sticks are warmed like French toast on a pan, plated in a criss-cross pattern, then surrounded by dribbles of a tamarind reduction she makes to order. The dish is almost as amazing as the woman who makes it all seem so effortless.
Xanh Bistro, 16161 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 531-2030; www.xanhbistro.com. Open Wed.-Mon. for lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Main entrées, $6.95-$14.95. Beer and wine.