Although Vietnamese food in Orange County long ago spread beyond Little Saigon, most spots remain segregated. Viets have their restaurants, Mexicans usually frequent others, and the pho palaces and bánh mì spots outside central OC tend to lean gabacho. That's why it's wonderful to see the crowd at Pho Jazmine: Mexican immigrants and Vietnamese refugees, white high schoolers with their pocho friends, hipster Asians and even Muslims—OC in one dining room. Even better, the owners don't whitewash their cuisine at all. Sure, the dining room is sleek and the flat-screen TV invariably tuned in to CNN, but the workers unapologetically sing along to the latest Paris By Night (which, by the way, is nowadays getting WAY too influenced by K-pop). And the menu has favorites and rarities, confident its customers can handle both.
Take the bún gà sáo mang: chicken soup with vermicelli noodles and bamboo shoots. It's like a simpler, heartier version of chicken pho: no star anise, no lime to cut the flavor, no herbs other than fried shallots, scallions and raw onions. Add in gobs of shrimp paste, and you get something akin to chicken ramen—savory, filling and fabulous. The chicken is served on the side (watch out for the bones), and there's a ginger sauce for dipping. Bún gà sáo mang deserves a wider audience, but the dominance of pho means only a couple of restaurants regularly offer it—it wasn't even on Pho Jazmine's menu at the beginning of last year.
And while the pho is great and the bún bò Hue better, keep watching for the specialties. Right now, it's offering com tom càng rim—fat shrimp sautéed in a garlic-chile sauce. Its gargantuan hot pots require a day's notice and feed at least three. But, seriously, order the specialties. Pho Jazmine once offered salmon spring rolls with a tamarind sauce—as spectacular as it sounds. But it's not available anymore because, as a waiter told me, not enough people ordered it. Read the blackboard here religiously, and you can thank me later . . . by ordering specials again and again.
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Pho Jazmine, 16086 Harbor Blvd., Fountain Valley, (714) 760-4572.