If you're going to go to a Vietnamese restaurant outside Little Saigon, you better have a goddamn great explanation. Don't give me the excuse of convenience, whine about Little Saigon being too far away from you. Simply put, 99 percent of Vietnamese restaurants in Orange County outside Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Fountain Valley, Westminster and Anaheim are not only inferior to what's found in the original enclave, the sad reality is they're not that good, period.
Exceptions exist, of course, mostly of the grandfathered-in variety: I'm thinking Kim Loan in Fullerton and . . . really, that's it. Oh, and Long Hai in Tustin, one of the anchors in one of OC's best shopping plazas, a multicultural fantasy that includes a Krav Maga school, Cream Pan, Korean karaoke, O.C. Kosher Mart, Laxmi Sweet and Spices, a dinner theater, and legendary dive bar Deva's. Long Hai has long-served as a savior for South County folks not wanting to brave the whole 405. But more than merely serving as a neighborhood place, this restaurant's Vietnamese offerings truly excel, worthy of a strip mall off Magnolia, if not Bolsa itself. The menu is mostly a greatest-hits of Vietnamese food: bún, pho, rice dishes and Chinese-American favorites for the 10 OC residents who still don't care for the flavors of the Mekong. But Long Hai adds twists. The cha gio aren't just glistening, dense egg rolls; they come with a platter of herbs so you can make tacos à la bánh xéo. Frog legs don't just come as sinewy twigs; they're fat, chewy, dripping with garlic butter and garnished with green onions. Then comes the seafood, gorgeous slabs of fish marinated in sauces ranging from ginger to basil to a tamarind glaze on a fried sole that has long been the stuff of local legend; the latter fish is cooked so delicately that you can remove flesh from bone with barely a cough (just watch it with the globs of roe, if you're not into salty surprises). It makes the live lobster available seem as classy as frozen fish sticks.
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And though the majority of their clientele isn't Vietnamese, Long Hai doesn't water down anything. For dessert, the offerings are bona-fide ché—mung beans and red ones and all that savoriness that makes Viet sweets so wonderful. Go to Little Saigon first if you have a Vietnamese grub hankering, but a visit to Long Hai will do in a pinch. Hey, at least you're not heading to Irvine, you know?