When I say the parking lot in front of Tra House is a mess, I don't mean that figuratively. Most of the painted lines that separate one space from the next are either faded or nonexistent, and if you manage to find an empty spot in the anarchic chaos that ensues every Saturday night, your car won't likely fit unless it's a golf cart. After you leave your vehicle, hoping it'll survive the night un-dinged, you tiptoe around a postapocalyptic landscape of cigarette butts, errant bits of trash and bald spots of dirt, then pass an open garbage container whose stench makes you instinctively cover your nose and mouth. But as with anything in Little Saigon, you can't judge the restaurant by the parking lot, especially this one. The Boiling Crab empire was born right here, and its original location still packs 'em in a few doors down from Tra House. But these days, Tra House is the main draw—and it's an oasis of cool and a sanctuary from the hellishness you just trudged through.
After you pull open the large glass door that swivels on an odd axis, you find yourself in a gigantic room made to look as though a Mad Max-style scrap-metal junkyard went shabby chic. The place is unlike any you've seen in Little Saigon, with angles acute and obtuse, steel and wood, glass and neon. You follow a line of brass tubing that runs in the rafters and find that there's a bicycle balanced precariously at the end. At the far corner of the second dining room stands an impressive fountain made from a series of plastic recycle bins. Behind one of the glass partitions, a chef wrestles with the bifurcated carcass of a huge lobster. He flips it over a fuming grill, his eyes squinting from the smoke. Then he lays the creature down on a platter before cramming a tangle of sautéed linguine into the head cavity. The assembled dish is delivered to the party across from you. They proceed to pick it apart politely with chopsticks, then ravenously with their bare hands.
Your clam noodle arrives in slightly less dramatic fashion. The noodles are served in a small bowl, separated from the clams strewn around the serving tray alongside boulders of potato and corn on the cob—all of it slicked with the same Cajun-spiced, buttery sauce that coats the linguine. You taste it and realize it's a merger of Crustacean Beverly Hills' garlic noodles and the low-country boil of the Boiling Crab. Tra House has connected the dots between these two disparate Vietnamese dining camps.
Most of the menu tries to bridge the same divide, with frequent stops in between. There are expensive steaks presented with artful swipes of carrot purée, doughy pizza amoebas that come in margherita and caprese, but there's also pho and mien xào tôm cua, a delicate stir-fry of glass noodles with shrimp, crab and egg—easily the best rendition in Little Saigon. Tra House makes wonderful salads, too, such as the one with shredded mango, ong choy and cuttlefish that rivals any at Quan Hy. There's also a salad consisting almost entirely of those wetted rice-paper discs usually reserved for spring rolls; the translucent wrappers are cut into strips, then tossed with quail eggs and mango. You'll want to start in as soon as the salad is served, as those strips taste as if you're chewing on latex the longer you wait.
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There are more treasures from the same Street Foods section of the menu that includes the rice-paper salad. A delicious fried rice cake with egg seems as though someone made an omelet out of dim sum turnip cakes. An elaborate dish called com cháy kho quet features rice flattened into a disc and crisped up on both sides that you're supposed to tear as though a dosa and dip into a skillet of a funky-salty minced-meat stew flavored with fermented bean paste. It's around this point you realize Tra House serves just about every food from every restaurant in Little Saigon. It even does snails and clams as though it were a bona-fide quán oc. It attempts nem nuong cuon and deep-fried salmon belly even if it can't quite top Brodard and Garlic & Chives' respective versions.
Soon you settle into what's arguably the best dish of the house: the hot pots, especially the seafood one with shrimp, mussels, clams and fish balls in a broth heated over a sterno setup. You dip your raw glass noodles into it, chopstick by chopstick, and when you get the bill and realize you're paying almost next to nothing for it, you remember that parking lot. You wonder how much more your meal might cost if the landlord spent any money on its upkeep.
Tra House, 14291 N. Euclid St., Ste. D107, Garden Grove, (714) 554-1036; www.trahouse.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer and wine.