That's right, folks: Welcome the return of our 100 Favorite Dishes list! How does it differ from last year's supposedly authoritative list? That was 2010; this is 2011, silly! Some dishes from last year will appear on this year's list; some, alas, no longer exist or didn't exist last year. Why are we doing this? Because ustedes told us to!
Plus, this is a great way to talk about items with which we're currently obsessed. So tune in for the next 100 days, as we count down, starting with . . .
No. 100: Lemongrass Chicken, Extra Spicy at Vietnam's Pearl
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Vietnam's Pearl is one of the better non-Little Saigon Vietnamese restaurants in Orange County, the place Costa Mesans and Newporters visit after they realize Oki Doki is a sham. The bún, pho and even bánh mìs are fine, the place slowly turning into a 1.5-generation Vietnamese restaurant as the nice lady's children get older and take over the operation. And it's their innovations that leads to the lemongrass chicken, extra spicy dish.
Gà xao sa ot is a mainstay on Little Saigon menus, a fragrant, peppy mix of chicken pieces rubbed with a lemongrass-chili sauce. You can have it the traditional way at Vietnam's Pearl, with little bits of lemongrass looking like burrs stuck on the meal. But ask for it extra-spicy, instead; in fact, tell the waiter you want your tongue burned. What comes out is something approaching a vindaloo, a sauced-up, spicy-as-hell rendition of the dish that nevertheless retains its lemongrass roots. I never have to add Sriracha (ignore the dollop on top of the rice mound in the shot above)--the chicken is that spicy. The pickled cucumbers on the side refresh the palate--and, of course, few things are better on earth than using the rice to soak up every last drop of lemongrass-chicken drippings.
Vietnam Pearl, 1215 Baker St., Ste. B, Costa Mesa, (714) 540-2212.