Pity the other publications in the stable o' stallions that is Village Voice Media, because they have to come up with a list like this, too--and they don't have Little Saigon sitting smack dab in the middle of their publication area. How do we choose from the hundreds--yes, multiple hundreds--of Vietnamese restaurants in Orange County? We could write one of these top-ten lists just based on banh mi. We already pretty much did write one about pho. We could even critique the top ten bowls of bun bo Hue, the top ten seven courses of beef, or the top ten nem nuong cuon in the county... so instead, here's a representative sampling, and make sure you add your favorites in the comments section!
HONORABLE MENTION: Break of Dawn
The Pioneer of South County
Why just an honorable mention? Because Break of Dawn isn't really a Vietnamese restaurant; it's a great restaurant run by a Vietnamese chef, with Vietnamese flavors welded expertly with French, Mexican, Hawaiian, etc. It deserves a spot on this list if for no other reason than the papaya salad spiked with Vietnamese herbs that accompanies Portuguese sausage and fried rice--but mostly because it's awesome.
24351 Avenida de la Carlota, Laguna Hills; 949-587-9418; breakofdawnrestaurant.com.
10. Thach Che Hien Khanh
You Put De Spoon In De Coconut
While you might get a small cup of che ba mau--three-bean coconut pudding, where "pudding" is a generous term for the liquid texture of the most popular Vietnamese dessert--in any Vietnamese restaurant, at Hien Khanh they specialize in dozens of varieties of che, from bananas to sweet potatoes to rice balls to jelly squiggles, all doused in sweet coconut cream. If you've overdone it on the chile sauces in the condiment tray at dinner, head for Hien Khanh to cool the fire for shockingly low prices.
9639 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-839-8143.
9784 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove; 714-537-5105; no website.
9. Com Tam Tran Quy Cap
Mountains of Toppings
Devotees of the huge platters of broken rice know to head to this standby for soft egg-and-pork pie called cha, snappy bits of sweet sausage, squares of shrimp paste fried inside crunchy tofu skin, boiled pork tossed with toasted rice powder, and grilled meats of every description, all set over a fragrant pile of rice with the texture of couscous. Add your vegetables, some chiles, and a bowl of soup, and you've got lunch for two days.
16175 Harbor Blvd., Fountain Valley; 714-418-1333.
10522 McFadden Ave., Garden Grove; 714-839-3069; no website.
8. Quan Hy
The Zen Oasis of Central Vietnam
Walk over the indoor stream at Quan Hy and you'll see this is no hole in the wall; it's meant to evoke a feeling of Zen broken only by servers whisking food to tables... and that food! While it's best known for its sticky rice dishes, the best things on the menu are actually the salads, especially the jackfruit salad spiked with tart shredded banana flowers and pungent herbs.
9727 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-775-7179; no website.
7. Binh Dan
Getting Your Goat For Years
Seven courses of beef is so common in Little Saigon it's practically a cliché... but Binh Dan, tucked off the main drag in a low-slung strip mall, revitalizes the dish by replacing the traditional beef with tender, slightly gamy goat. Seven courses will be all you need to be converted to the cult of chivo.
10040 McFadden St., Westminster; 714-839-7050; no website.
6. Dat Thanh
The David to Brodard's Goliath
The best nem nuong cuon in Little Saigon are not at the restaurant that made them famous, but at a tiny slip of a restaurant off Brookhurst, where they fold fried strips of egg roll wrapper in with the grilled-to-order pork sausage, the herbs, and the vegetables, and then serve it with a warm dipping sauce that evokes every flavor for which Vietnam is famous.
10032 McFadden St., Westminster; 714-650-0910; no website.
5. Xanh Bistro
Date Night Chic
Vietnamese food seems like a natural match for date night--light fare that won't weigh down the later part of the date--but the restaurants that serve it tend to be harshly-lit cafeterias. Not so Haley Nguyen's Xanh Bistro, a chic place tucked in the corner of a plaza just outside Little Saigon. Traditional Vietnamese cooking with Western-style service and desserts you can linger over? Table for two, please.
16161 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley; 714-531-2030; xanhbistro.com.
4. OC Poultry and Rotisserie
The Outlying Success Story
Great banh mi in Little Saigon is not news. Great banh mi a mile from Disneyland, though, is earth-shaking. As the name implies, they specialize in rotisserie chicken, which is shredded and piled onto what is one of the county's best sandwiches, with a fried egg, garlic mayo, shredded pickled vegetables, chiles and cilantro--and it's cheap, to boot.
2117 E. Ball Rd., Anaheim; 714-780-0225; no website.
3. Pho Thanh Lich
The Final Pho
OC Weekly's food bloggers ate dozens of bowls of pho to determine the county's best, and the clear, unanimous winner was Pho Thanh Lich, whose mahogany broth comes with the option of having your rare filet mignon on the side so it stays rare. The best part? In the evenings, a bowl of standard pho can be had for as little as $2.99.
14500 Brookhurst St., Westminster; 714-531-5789.
2. Vien Dong
Little Saigon History Encapsulated
When the first wave of Vietnamese refugees landed at Camp Pendleton and settled in Westminster, the first restaurant to serve them a taste of home was Vien Dong; it's still one of the best restaurants around, and it only takes one bowl of bun cha Hanoi (deconstructed pork noodle salad) or one platter of turmeric-marinated, dill-scented grilled fish to prove the point.
14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove; 714-531-8253; no website.
1. Ngu Binh
Every Kind of Bánh
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Bánh in Vietnamese refers to any floury or starchy food, and that's what our 2011 pick for Best Vietnamese serves: sticky rice discs topped with shredded shrimp and pork, fried rice balls stuck to mochi-like glutinous dumplings, and bun bo Hue, the fiery, Central Vietnamese cousin to pho.
14072 Magnolia St., Westminster; 714-903-6000; no website.