Dozens of refreshing ethnic drinks have passed my lips in a decade of reviewing OC restaurants: the U.K. favorite Vimto, Russian peach soda, Persian dough (the yogurt drink that's better than it sounds) and a jungle's worth of fruit smoothies. But none has proven better to combat summer than the earthy pleasure of nuoc mia—Vietnamese sugarcane juice, a Little Saigon classic usually overlooked by outsiders looking for a bánh mì or pho fix, but a beverage that deserves to become the next cupcake.
I once described nuoc mia as the I Corinthians 13 of the beverage world, and now that I think about it, I understated its marvels. Sugarcane's sweetness is potent, surprisingly vegetal, but never cloying, and the flavors become even more accentuated once turned into juice. Nuoc mia purveyors across Little Saigon always make it fresh, feeding sugarcane through hand-cranked juicers until what's left is smashed stalk in trashcans and a frothy emerald liquid in an ice-filled cup. The better places keep baskets of kumquats on public display; the fruit is tossed into the juicer at will, the better to tweak the nuoc mia toward greater ambrosial heights.
The finished product invigorates, cools and addicts. And the following dives make the best. The versions only differ by gradients—but it's those individual tweaks that separate the fabulous from the spectacular.
Nuoc Mia Vien Dong gets many of its customers from people waiting for a seat at the Boiling Crab next door, people looking for a snack from this sweets store. Here is the best nuoc mia deal in the county—the small, priced at $2 like everywhere else, is actually medium-sized—and the family that runs the shop is known to tinker with the traditional recipe by throwing in fruits such as strawberries upon request. But Vien Dong commits the unpardonable sin of pouring older sugarcane juice into a fresh drink, and the tangerine they'll toss in overwhelms the stalk's sweetness instead of complementing it. It's still refreshing, but in Little Saigon's nuoc mia wars, it's only fourth-best—and that's a gap from the top as wide as Lake Superior. 13894 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 590-9035.
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For years, the most famous Little Saigon venue in the genre was Nuoc Mia Vien Tay, a place that rightfully garnered mentions in The New York Times and on NPR. But if you haven't stopped in for a while, be prepared for a shock: It's no longer the quaint shop that stocked jerky and chicory coffee; new management transformed the business into another run-of-the-mill boba joint complete with couches and flat-screen televisions. The ancient juicer is still toward the back, still manned by a Latina, and tangerines and oranges are still added to the finished product, but Vien Tay's nuoc mia doesn't reach the levels it once did—of course, this means it's now only great instead of transcendent, like Ted Williams after World War II instead of before. 14370 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-9801.
Sugarcane juice is actually the third priority at Hot Vit Lon Long An. Its secondary function is as a water store where Latinos and Vietnamese alike fill jugs from the store's many taps, and it's most famous for selling eggs—chicken, for sure, but also duck (fresh and with embryo intact for consumption), quail and even goose. But take a hint from the dried sugarcane stalk tied to the pole directly in front of Hot Vit, a beacon for the thirsty to try its sharper-than-usual nuoc mia. The trick is using green, unripened kumquats: You still get the sweetness of the fruit, but there's a tangy, verdant undertone, almost like a kefir lime. This might also be the area's smartest nuoc mia shop, as signs advertise the drink in English, Vietnamese, Chinese and even Spanish. 8942 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 934-6363.
The best place to try nuoc mia this summer is New Duc Huong, a lonely bakery inside a small business plaza. Its emphasis is cha giò, crunchy egg rolls, and the Tet specialty bánh chung—but notice the neon window sign advertising nuoc mia? Extra kumquats and a jolt of orange juice are added here for a combo flush with citrus candor and nearly as sweet as Orange Bang! A sip of New Duc Huong's version, and you can bear all the troubles of the world—or at least Orange County. 9081 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 104, Westminster, (714) 897-8143.
This column appeared in print as "Nuoc Mia Mania! Where to find the summery-est Vietnamese sugarcane juice in Little Saigon."