If you're not planning to go to the Tet Festival at the OC Fairgrounds this weekend, but still want to eat Vietnamese food, here are 10 of my essential Little Saigon eateries to try. This is the list I've given to co-workers, visiting relatives, and out-of-town friends who've asked for help in navigating Bolsa Street and its surrounding tributaries.
Some are hardly restaurants. But in Little Saigon even some of the restaurants are hardly restaurants. The point is the food, and it's some of the best that can be made, at prices you aren't likely find anywhere else but the greatest Vietnamese enclave outside of actual Vietnam.
As usual: THE LIST IS IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER.
Yes, there are more where these came from (I had to whittle down my list from about 30), so there are a lot of worthy places missing. Fill the gaps in with a comment, would you?
Chúc mừng năm mới!
1. Banh Mi Che Cali
After you graduate from Lee's Sandwiches' rudimentary course in Vietnamese sandwiches, come to Banh Mi Che Cali for your advanced training. Even with inflation, the price for one of the best banh mi sandwiches in OC will be lower than the cheapest fast-food footlong you see advertised on TV and by sign-twirlers. The Buy-Two-Get-One-Free deal–the way everyone buys sandwiches–is always offered, working out to about $5 for three sandwiches. These overstuffed, two-fisted hoagie begin with rice-flour-imbued breads that bite with an assertive crunch and a crumb as light as a cloud. Start with the dac biet, the house special, in which such cold cuts as headcheese, Vietnamese ham and cha lua are layered on thick, tucked among a schmear of liver paté, cilantro, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon. For the thit nuong, you get ruddy strips of well-marinated grilled pork. Order the chicken, and you'll find the meat shredded into a hash prone to absorbing the squirts of Maggi sauce and the slathering of the creamy house mayo. Complete your visit with a few tubs of che, a catch-all phrase to describe Vietnamese desserts ranging from warm to cold.
2. Boiling Crab
Know this: wait times are routinely long and frustrating. But the payoff is worth every minute lost to time. The hours spent thumb-twiddling outside will eventually get you a wax-paper-draped table inside and a bib tied around your neck. You'll then feast (with your hands!) like never before on frigid oysters, crab of different persuasions, crawfish when they're in season and good ol' shrimp. Ask for everything "Whole-Shabang," in which the food is coated with an ingenious concoction made from butter, lemon juice, Zatarain's and lots of garlic–basically every flavor they have mixed into a bag. Opting for mild is sufficient. Anything hotter requires eye protection, lest that stuff accidentally splashes into your sockets and causes blindness. The shrimp soaks up the sauce like a sponge and gives you the most bang for your buck. Strip each critter of its head, suck the fatty goop
from its skull, being careful not to let its sharp appendages poke you a new orifice. Dig into the underbelly, and disrobe it of its shell and tail. Eat the spindly legs and take the sweet meat for once last dip in that sauce before eating. This is what you've been waiting for.
The nem noung cuon is the one item that has seeded Brodard's success and the reason there's always a line. It's a spring roll to end all spring rolls. Inside a wetted cylinder of rice paper hides lettuce, a slender piece of deep fried egg roll skin, cucumber, and nem nuong, a ruddy concoction made of pork or shrimp which isn't quite a sausage and not really SPAM, but a combo of the two. A lot of places in Little Saigon can construct a fine nem nuong cuon, but only Brodard seems to have perfected the sauce that makes it sing. Halfway between soup and dip, what's in it is a mystery. It's possibly the most guarded secret recipe in the enclave, perhaps OC. For sure there's garlic, a little chili paste, maybe sugar. Magic and sorcery? More than likely.
4. Com Tam Thuan Kieu
Broken rice, or com tam, used to be considered discards from the threshing process, the cheapest rice meant for the poorest people. But alas, com tam turned out to be the good stuff. The smaller bits of rice cook to a more interesting chew than the whole grain. Now there are restaurants that feature it as the centerpiece of a dish, eaten with simply-grilled meats, fresh cut vegetables, and a bowl of sweetened fish sauce called nuoc cham. Virtually every restaurant and pho joint in Little Saigon has a version of it, but few actually specialize in it like Com Tam Thuan Kieu. Out front, toothless, chain-smoking old men sit and chat, no doubt reminiscing about a time in recent history when Ho Chi Minh City was still called Saigon. Inside, the menu–which features broken rice and meat pairings in sixty-four permutations–is dizzying. The specialty of the house is #7 and #8, two dishes which takes the name of the restaurant itself. Take either one and be prepared to feast: these rice plate masterpieces are topped with seven mouth-watering items heaped onto a generous mound of rice…broken rice, of course.
5. Le Croissant Dore
Set on a crumbly crust, Le Crossaint Dore's fruit tarts are legendary. They're flaky, layered with a cool, eggy custard you could eat on its own if you had the chance, the base on which the fresh fruit are arranged. A final shellacking of shiny goo makes the strawberries, kiwis, pineapple, oranges, and grapes glisten like mirrors. And no matter what time of the year you decide to pick one up, the pastry will always look the same. No it's not seasonal, but it is dependable, and cheap to boot. At any other patisserie, expect to be gouged for more than what they charge here. While you're here, order the thing everyone in the restaurant orders, the bo kho, Vietnamese beef stew–a plateful of tendon-flecked meat simmered in a spiced tomato broth and eaten with a light and airy baguette you use to dunk.
The seven courses of beef at Pagolac goes like this: The first will be a fondue, in which you swirl slices of beef in a simmering bowl of a vinegary broth. The next four will come on the same plate: ground beef stogies swaddled in peppery la lot leaves; rolled pieces of grilled tenderloin with a slender sliver of ginger tucked inside; steamed spheres of soft ground beef packed with mushrooms, peas and bean thread noodle that's eaten with a shrimp chip; and finally, round meatballs wrapped and broiled in self-basting caul fat, which were perhaps the best morsels of them all. Then there€'s the final two courses–a brisk salad of lettuce with thin slices of beef and onions dressed in Italian, and then a refreshing bowl of rice soup with bits of ground beef and ginger. The new location may be smaller, more cramped than where it used to be, but the food is just as good and elaborate as ever.
7. Pho Thanh Lich
Here, like nowhere else, there's the feeling of community among strangers, a shared experience of something good, something special: the pho. Here is pho as pho is meant to be: cheap, hot and good. Thanh Lich's soup is a wondrous elixir of clearness, ladled out from vats as tall as a desk chair, a pot simmered long and slow, inside the vessel is a liquid lovingly looked after. It's poured scalding onto the clumped mound of noodles at a palate-singing temperature. Deep is the flavor, a tang, a freshness, a beef juice diluted to a brew as invigorating to slurp as the beach air is to breathe. The whole bowl tells the story of beef, with the broth the constant narrator and the cuts of cattle, from the very tender to the very, very tender, an indispensable character list of protagonists. Tai, rare steak, just melts. Beef tendons get boiled down to an aspic-like gel. And the tripe tastes as tripe should taste, with some of its barnyard stink still distinguishable. The toppings, they almost don't really matter. Bean sprouts, the saw-tooth herb, basil, lemon and jalapeño become chatter, noise, interruptions to a symphony that already has the harmony in place. Above all, this soup doesn't inhibit the kind of thirst lesser pho broths do, a sign of its uncompromising pedigree and lack of MSG, a known and oft-abused shortcut that's unthinkable here.
8. Quan Hy
After you walk over the tiny bridge and find a seat in one of the prettiest dining rooms in Little Saigon, start with the banh beo, which are simply rice flour batter steamed in miniature saucers and sprinkled with minced shrimp meat, diced scallions and fried caramelized bits of onion. An order comes in eight single serving shots, arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid on a square dish. Holding the center square is a bowl of sauce with floating rounds of diced Thai chilis–bobbing menaces you should treat like sea mines. To eat one, take a teaspoon to task and splash on a few drops of the golden sauce onto each saucer, then scoop out the rice cake as you would a cup of dessert gelatin. The opaque and milky white substance is not unlike a very dense rice noodle, but with a clean, light, and firm texture that's not at all starchy or pasty. You will want to order other delicious things at Quan Hy which is a Hue cuisine specialist, but start with this–it's kind of the gateway drug.
9. Thach Che Hien Khanh
Thach Che Hien Khanh is the preeminent purveyor of all things sweet and dessert in Little Saigon. There are lines even when there shouldn't be, in the middle of the afternoon. People patiently queue up to order from steam trays filled with the sugary, the bean-based and the sticky-rice-anchored. What you order gets piled into take-out containers, sold and then consumed for later. But they also make one of the best fried bananas in the world.
10. Van's Restaurant
Van's is, without question, the reigning ruler of banh xeo, crispy fried Vietnamese pancakes that can be best described as a cross between a French crepe and a Venezuelan arepa. This distant cousin of a French crepe is named after the hissing sound the rice-flour-coconut-milk-and-turmeric-colored batter makes when it hits the hot oiled pan and is swirled to coat the surface. Whereas its Gallic counterpart is floppy and tender, the best Vietnamese bánh xèo is enduringly crunchy and lacy, especially the edges. The oil renders the pancake rigid and golden brown. It's then that these unearthly discs are carefully folded into a clamshell, with a stir-fry of bean sprouts, scraps of pork, curls of shrimp and wilted onion inside. Now resembling an overstuffed omelet, it's rushed out to the dining room, served with a sweet-and-sour fish sauce for dipping and an Amazon of herbs.