The Asian Garden Mall in Little Saigon is wonderfully, stubbornly stuck in the 1980s, a clash of neon, tacky tile, songs bleeding into one another from shop and mall speakers, gummy floors, horrible parking and shops ranging from high-priced jewelry stores to rooms stacked with cheap toys. I'm actually surprised it's still around, that developers haven't radically altered it to appeal to second-generation Vietnamese, who'll only go there if they're getting married or dropping off their fathers and elders to spend the day in front of the building, arguing the day away on benches.
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Even the food court is befitting of an old mall—mostly buffet-style stalls of items that are cooked in the morning, left in display trays and reheated upon order, or with an emphasis on snack foods. And that's how the Eiffel Café looks at first glance. A full menu is devoted to shave ice, standing next to cases filled with possible toppings—Froot Loops, chocolate chips and other sweets. A counter has prepackaged foods such as goi cuon, cassava cakes and egg rolls. Behind the sneeze guard is still more—noodles, fried fish, corn on the cob, sausages on a stick, even quail eggs ready for slurping. But you notice the young man manning the place is playing on his iPad and talking in English. You see the bright, large photos behind him, proclaiming the specials. And then you remember the name: the Eiffel Café. French-Vietnamese restaurants will always take special care in their offerings because they have a reputation to maintain for nuanced meals, mall stall or not.
The menu splits into traditional Vietnamese and French-Vietnamese specials. The latter side sees everything from pork chops in a fine ragú to a fabulous beef tongue in a light tomato sauce—silkness, thy name is luoi bò xot cà chua. The Vietnamese specials tend to stick to rice and noodle dishes, heaps of sautéed or steamed starch paired with expertly cooked veggies or meats. But what brings me here is the bò kho, simultaneously the homiest of Vietnamese soups and the most complex. It features a galaxy of spices (lemongrass, curry, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, five-spice, annatto), sautéed onions, carrots and chunks of brisket floating in the broth. The Eiffel Café cooks it fresh every morning but lets it sit—as with pozole, bò kho is best after sitting for hours, the better to let the fat melt, to let the spices settle and blend into a mud-red Mekong of flavor. It's impossibly fatty—you can let it cool for nearly half an hour, yet your tongue will still be scalded by those droplets of suet—and complex, yet the point of this soup is comfort: mama's hug in bowl form.
The Eiffel Caf, 9200 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 307, Westminster, (714) 890-1533; www.theeiffelcafe.com.
This column appeared in print as "Greatest Mall Stall of Them All."