It's 1 a.m. on a Thursday, and I'm barreling down Main Street in Orange, returning from . . . somewhere . . . when I slam on the brakes so hard my '79 Ford Ranger Supercab nearly flips over into St. Joseph's Hospital. I couldn't believe it: Nguyen's Kitchen, a dive in the shadow of CHOC, was not only open, but it was also hopping.
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I'd been eating at Nguyen's for months, enjoying its delicious second-gen take on bánh mìs—but it was always during the daytime, and I was usually one of only a few customers. But so late at night, there was only one empty table, the rest filled with what seemed like Kaba Modern members on a date night. Waiting in line were nurses in uniform, millennial drunks ready to soak up the booze in their guts, and older gabachos who didn't want to make the drive down Main to Norms in SanTana. The restaurant's gamble to stay open until 2:30 a.m. every night and reopen for breakfast was paying off—so I celebrated with an order of garlic noodles.
The menu is akin to a greatest hits of what's popular with OC's Asian-American foodies right now: Fat macarons filled with ice cream sit in the freezer; Thai iced tea and Vietnamese iced coffee chill in a fridge. There's Cajun crawfish pasta and Korean-style fried chicken and Taiwanese popcorn chicken and sliders enlivened with a black sauce halfway between hoisin and teriyaki. The bánh mìs are hefty and on an ideally crispy baguette; rice bowls get topped with bulgogi or shrimp, then drowned in Sriracha. About the only thing missing here is poke.
Nguyen's Kitchen isn't high dining—but it's not the Viet-bro lovefest of Afters or Glee Donuts & Burgers, either. There's nuance in the garlic noodle, care in the green sauce that comes with it (a jalapeño bearnaise, maybe?). Does ol' Nguyen have more ambition? Here's to hoping the next time I swing by late, more challenging dishes pop up on the menu—and that Nguyen's be as hopping as ever.
Nguyen's Kitchen, 445 S. Main St., Ste. B, Orange, (714) 771-5410; www.nguyenskitchen.com.