Parlez-Vous Dien Bien Phu?
Photo by Tenaya HillsHoly Stockholm Syndrome! Many Vietnamese-Americans seem to view the 100-year French rule of their mother country with fondness. Examples abound: a popular local Vietnamese musical production company called Paris by Night produces cabaret worthy of the Moulin Rouge. Soothing French music is de rigueur in any expensive Little Saigon restaurant or club; some hang pictures of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe or other French landmarks on their walls. Hoping to wow their clients, some Vietnamese businessmen occasionally break into français. It's as if colonialism was the best development in Vietnam's history.
One reason for the Gallic obsession might be the inextricable link between France and Vietnamese cuisine. The caffeine-driven Vietnamese breakfast of coffee and baguette traces its heritage directly to the cafés that French administrators frequented while stationed in Indochina. Other modern-day Vietnamese culinary mainstays like flan and pâté also owe their introduction to Napoleon III's 19th-century imperial adventures. Rather than merely rip-off ideas, however, Vietnamese gourmands throughout the decades applied French cooking techniques to Vietnamese ingredients to create what's known as French-Vietnamese cuisine, a style of feast renowned throughout Asia and Little Saigon for its multiflavored, decadent creations.
The most celebrated local French-Vietnamese restaurant is Santa Ana's Favori, but I'm not sure why. The eatery is best known for broiling one of the finer catfishes west of the Mississippi. But the onion soup is even more impressive, a French standard that Favori chefs infuse with bitter fish broth. Favori's reputation notwithstanding, the onion soup is one of the restaurant's few fusion attempts. The rest of its extensive French and Vietnamese listings are rigidly segregated. 3502 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 531-6838.
More adept at fusion is La Veranda. Outside, teenagers from a nearby boba joint loiter loudly. But enter, and La Veranda's interior transports you to the isolated plantation that's included in the director's cut of Apocalypse Now: romantic, splashing fountains; marble pillars; bucolic paintings; and an opaque banquet hall that wouldn't seem out of place in Versailles. Most of the Vietnamese dishes listed in the colossal 14-page menu are unsullied by French influences—here, the colonization runs backward. Traditional French delicacies such as escargot, frog legs and coq au vin are accompanied by such Vietnamese side dishes as pickled daikon, nuoc mam (sweet fish sauce) and rice paper. The ensuing DIY combos result in plates that should earn La Veranda at least a four-star rating from the Michelin guide. 10131 Westminster Ave., Ste. 114, Garden Grove, (714) 539-3368.
If La Veranda hearkens to Vietnam's antebellum past, then Saigon Bistro provides a vision of how the country would've developed if Dien Bien Phu went the other way. This café proudly advertises that its coffee originates in France—never mind that Vietnam is the world's second-largest coffee producer. The coffee is like a mule kick to the temple, and the French-Vietnamese platters are just as bold: a buttery bún noodle dish, filet mignon painted with a salty nuoc mam-driven marinade. Gentler is the lobster bisque and green papaya beef salad. The dish combines the French-introduced concept of salad (not to mention lobster) with the sinfully sweet green papayas beloved throughout Southeast Asia to produce an entrée that suggests maybe the occupation wasn't bad after all. 15470 Magnolia St., Westminster, (714) 895-2120.
Favori, La Veranda and Saigon Bistro follow traditional recipes, but for innovation, visit Le Jardin, where head chef/owner Corey Vuu relies on southern Vietnam's meat dishes for his cross-cultural mixes. Chew on Vuu's bò luc lac, salted sautéed beef cubes (think Spam with flavor) served with a side order of crunchy pommes frites and a giant crisp cucumber that gives the beef an extra French zing. Vuu travels beyond France for some of his plates, too. The braised catfish ravioli—salty fish chopped up and wrapped up in plump pasta squares—is simultaneously Italian and Vietnamese. And that excellent crème brûlée that should finish each meal? You'll find a succulent lychee, the Vietnamese treasure, tranquilly resting at the bottom of a French cream sea. 17431 Brookhurst St., Ste. A, Fountain Valley, (714) 593-8511.
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