If you want to show out-of-towners modern-day Garden Grove—not the city that was once America’s fastest-growing ’burb, not the faded glory of the Crystal Cathedral, not even the doped-out ska-heavy streets of Sublime’s song of the same name, but real, vibrant Garden Grove—take them to the intersection of Euclid Street and Westminster Avenue. The northwest corner features busy small businesses that represent the last gasp of gabacho Garden Grove; the northeast corner, all Latino, represented by a Mexican-owned car-stereo shop and the fabulous Regina’s Restaurant, the county’s oldest Argentine eatery. Across Westminster from Regina’s is a shopping plaza that veers between Korean and Vietnamese restaurants, depending on the fortunes of the city’s nearby sections of Little Saigon and Little Seoul. And on the southwest side is another uneasy ethnic share: Vietnamese businesses and Latino jornaleros who pop in for some coffee and snacks and spend the rest of the day glumly seeking work.
Most of the day laborers have long patronized Thuy’s Food to Go, a good place if you want something slopped onto a plate for cheap. But next door is Thanh Tam Bakery, a gleaming shrine to the bánh mì, that most-accessible of Vietnamese meals. Seriously, if you’re one of the six remaining souls in Orange County who hasn’t tried the Vietnamese-style hoagie, your ambassador is here in the form of a bacon-and-ham sandwich. No tricks—straightforward ham, crisped strips of bacon, fat globules hardened and ready to melt in the warmth of your mouth, snuggling next to sweet pickled cucumbers and carrots, with a sprig of cilantro and jalapeño. It’s in a baguette that’s as fat as you’ll ever find, more French roll than bread stick, with a golden crust that offers only the slightest, most delightful resistance before your teeth tear through it into fluffy glory. Thanh Tam sells 10 bánh mìs, almost all as accessible (ham and Spam, ham and egg) to the general public, but none mitigated for non-Vietnamese tastes. And, of course, the outlandishly cheap price: $2.50.
Though a bakery in name, Thanh Tam also excels in other offerings. The pâté chaud, fat and flaky, brimming with a buttery, pepper-spiked chicken paste that enlivens the palate in a way pepper hasn’t since the Spice Wars, is spectacular. The brightly colored, plastic-wrapped dishes (spring rolls, purple sticky rice, toasted sesame-seed balls) will make a great lunch or breakfast or dessert, depending on what it is. And a small slip of paper on the counter whispers of other surprises—a hearty bowl of bò kho, the beef-carrot soup that deserves the same love as its pho and bún bò Hue cousins. And a fried egg on your bánh mì to order? With food like this, who needs the Garden Grove of Schuller’s era?
Thanh Tam Bakery, 14095 Euclid St., Garden Grove, (714) 530-1969.
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This column appeared in print as "Corner Bakery."