In the wild and wacky world of food translations, few have proven more good-natured-but-incongruous than what the owners of Pho Binh in Santa Ana call goi cuon in Spanish: taquitos suaves, or smooth taquitos. Spring rolls as the greasy, crispy apotheosis of California Mexican cuisine? Um, no. Really, Pho Binh's goi cuons are burritos—close your eyes, ignore the peanuts, take a bite, and the pliant rice paper turns into a stretchy flour tortilla, while the noodles have the same toothsome pleasure of rice, and the herbs inside could double as epazote, even yerba santa. This is easily the fattest goi cuon in Little Saigon, as well as one of the best, with a sweeter-than-usual dipping sauce on the side and the skin of egg rolls inside to give it a crunchy—taquito-y, even—texture.
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That Pho Binh is even bothering with Spanish hints at its unique status as one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in Orange County that cater to a Latino clientele: where entire menus are translated into Spanish, where English is the third language when spoken at all, and where the elders yapping in the corner could as easily be abuelitos as Vietnam War vets. Though the restaurant is large and well-kept in the style of second-generation Vietnamese eateries, the food offerings are limited—mostly pho, bún, a couple of appetizers and noodle dishes, entrées best suited for a mass audience. But the owners don't dumb down the meals for the largely Latino clientele, or even modify them (save for the extra helping of raw jalapeño slivers that comes with every pho order, of course)—this is honest-to-goodness Vietnamese food. The restaurant sells bánh mí, mí noodles, even lemongrass beef, in versions better than most offered in Little Saigon, and it stocks every type of Asian hot sauce available (no Tapatío, alas). On weekends, with kids running around tables and adults reading Nguoi Viet and El Clasificado, it's a Republican's worst nightmare—and a foodie's dream.
Outside of the goi cuon/burritos, the most Mexican meal at Pho Binh is the chicken pho, a steaming bowl chock-a-block with naughty bits and all (Mexis love their chicken gizzards and hearts as much as the next Viet), with springy chunks of chicken breast and herb plates hosting rau ram and all the other acerbic greens that Vietnamese restaurants usually keep away from non-Viet palates. The beef pho is fine, and the seafood pho, a bright-red mixture of shrimp, fish and other sea creatures, tastes just like the siete mares (seven seas) soup offered at all Mexican seafood restaurants. The translation offered is somewhat correct: sopa de fideo, or vermicelli soup, even though pho noodles are generally thicker than vermicelli. Then again, when it comes to pho, translation isn't needed, as the language of a slurp and messy shirts is universal.
This column appeared in print as "Vietnamese Taquitos?"