Van's Restaurant Is Off the Wall
Van's Restaurant is the Vietnamese version of a greasy-spoon diner, the type of place parents would force their kids to go and now take their successful, assimilated grandchildren. The tinted windows on the outside make the restaurant look as though it houses aisles of video cassettes; the inside probably hasn't received a facelift since the Bush 41 administration. Tables are arranged, cafeteria-like, so that what was once a private dinner could quickly become a raucous feast with your new neighbors, ranging from chatty elders to scolding mothers and thirtysomething women dressed up as if they were on their way to a taping of Paris By Night.
In other words, it's a Little Saigon institution, packed from opening to close and closed only, mysteriously, on Wednesdays. Yet ask regulars to name items off the menu, and they'll only mention two. One of them is nem nuong cuon: pork sausage rolls, which are very good but don't match up to the ones served by Brodard across the street (the reason everyone orders them here is because the nem nuong is perpetually 50 percent off). The other dish is the bánh xeo, the best in Orange County, the dish that makes everyone forgive Van's its aesthetic shortcomings. Next to bún bò Hue, bánh xeo is probably the best Vietnamese standard that'll never cross over, and it's a damn tragedy. How can Americans not drool over a half-omelet, half-crepe as large as a coffee-table book, egg beaten into a crispy, airy shell as thin as a Listerine strip, tinted yellow with turmeric, then stuffed with mounds of shrimp, fatty pork, bean sprouts and green onions? The answer comes in the form of the plate that accompanies the bánh xeo: a harvest of hues ranging from purple to mint, mustard greens to lettuce, and an encyclopedia of astringent herbs whose flavor profile couldn't be imagined by the American palate. You grab the lettuce leaf, tear off a chunk of bánh xeo, stuff the mini-taco with herbs, then dunk the results in the chile-spiked fish. The results in your mouth—fattiness, sourness, sweetness, heartiness, crunchiness, deliciousness—are spectacular; the mess created on tables and your fingers is out of a kindergarten International Day buffet. And you will eat it like this; there are no forks and knives, and the chopsticks on each table are irrelevant.
It's a bit hard to eat at Van's—but who cares? The bánh xeo is legend and, at $4.95, almost as awesome as the Latino waiters who trade quips with customers in Vietnamese, none surprised at this brave, new Orange County. It's Van's, baby.
This column appeared in print as "Off the Wall."
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