Walk anywhere in Little Saigon these days, and you can throw a chopstick and hit a pho restaurant. In fact, pho has so permeated our local food culture that every city outside of our county’s Vietnamese enclave has at least one restaurant serving it. But once you’re ready to wean yourself from the amniotic fluid of this gateway dish, try these other Vietnamese dishes.
Banh Beo (Rice Flour Pudding with Dried Shrimp) at Quan Hy
Banh beo is 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 explosive sea mines. To eat one, 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 milky-white substance is not unlike a very dense rice noodle, but with a clean, light, 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.
Banh Mi (Baguette Sandwiches) at 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 bánh mì 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 somewhere around $6 for three sandwiches. These overstuffed, two-fisted hoagies 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 head cheese, Vietnamese ham and cha lua are layered on thickly, tucked among a schmear of liver paté, cilantro, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon. For the other two in your threesome, opt for the xiu mai, basically Vietnamese meatloaf, and the chicken, for which the meat is shredded into a hash prone to absorbing the squirts of Maggi sauce and the slathering of the creamy house mayo.
Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Crepes) at Van’s Restaurant
Van’s is, without question, the reigning ruler of bánh xèo, crispy fried Vietnamese pancakes that can be best described as a cross between a French crêpe and a Venezuelan arepa. It’s named after the hissing sound the batter of rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric batter makes when it hits the hot, oiled pan and is swirled to coat the surface: “Xeooooo!” While its French cousin 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 tucked 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.
Bo Kho (Beef Stew) at Le Croissant Dore
Le Crossaint Dore’s fruit tarts are legendary. They’re flaky and layered with a cool, eggy custard you could eat on its own if you had the chance. Got a party to go to? Pick one up and be a hero. But while you’re here, you must stay, take a seat and order the thing everyone in the restaurant gets, 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.
Bo 7 Mon (7 Courses of Beef) at Thien An
You might think seven courses of beef (that’s bo 7 mon in Vietnamese) is probably six too many. And you’d be right if every course weren’t so darn tasty and essential to the whole experience. Yes, the bovine bender is a special-occasion blowout that you’d be silly to have every day (although with a price significantly less than most steakhouse dinners, you technically could). The first course is a salad that includes beef and tripe. The second course is DIY. The bo nuong vi are thin slices of beef cooked tableside atop a heated iron dome. Once you finish grilling them, you wrap them around wetted discs of rice paper with veggies for an impromptu burrito. After that, bo nuong mo chai, seasoned-ground-beef spheres encased in caul that self-baste into the juiciest meatballs you’ll ever taste. Next, the bo nuong la lop, which are stubby meat stogies rolled inside lalot leaves—a cross between a grape leaf and nori. Then comes bo cha dum, a steamed meat cake studded with peas, mushrooms and mercilessly aggressive whole peppercorns. You scoop it up with some shrimp crackers. Finally, the meal concludes with a gigantic bowl of soup with clear broth, rice, alphabet pasta, a few strands of rice noodles, cilantro and bits of beef. At this point, you might even wish there were eighth and ninth courses.
Bun Rieu (Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup with Crab) at Quan Hop
If pho is beer, bun rieu is the Vietnamese noodle soup equivalent of a girly drink. The noodles will caress the tongue in lustrous, feathery wisps. You don’t chew it; you just let it melt. The broth it swims in is delicate and clear but rimmed with chili red rouge. Shrimp—chopped and reformed into figure-eight patties—are as pink as naked skin. Nubs of sea snail chew softly with a slight crunch, while cuts of fried tofu keep things grounded. Then there’s meat from a crab, packed loosely to disintegrate in your mouth as gently as a kiss. Floating in the bowl is a perky set of boiled tomatoes that leak juice into the soup and as you bite into them. And if you kept your eyes shut, you could mistake the cube of congealed pork blood for silken tofu or pudding.
Cha Ca Thang Long (Sizzling Fish with Dill) at Song Long
Ignore the French-Vietnamese dishes and come to Song Long for the dac biet, Vietnamese house specials, which, in this case, is Cha Ca Thang Long. You’ll see virtually every other table with an order of it, a fuming-hot plate brimming with delicate pieces of white fish yellowed by turmeric, cooked with onions and tangled up in fistfuls of dill. You eat the hot components in concert with the cold, tearing tia to herb leaves, dousing the sizzling fish with mam ruoc—a stinky, pinkish sauce made from fermented shrimp paste—and gobbling it all up atop chilled nests of bun noodles.
Che (Vietnamese desserts) at Thach Che Hien Khanh
Thach Che Hien Khanh is the pre-eminent purveyor of all things sweet and dessert-y in Little Saigon. There are lines even when there shouldn’t be, such as in the middle of the afternoon. People patiently queue up to order from steam trays of che, filled with the sugary, the bean-based and the sticky-rice-anchored. What you order gets piled into takeout containers. It also offers one of the best fried bananas in the world.
Com Tam (Broken Rice Combos) at 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. Com tam restaurants such as this one feature it as the centerpiece of a dish, eaten with simply grilled meats, freshly cut vegetables and a bowl of sweetened fish sauce called nuoc cham. The menu—which features broken rice and meat pairings in 64 permutations—is dizzying. The specialties of the house are Nos. 7 and 8, two dishes that take the name of the restaurant itself. Order 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.
Nem Nuong Cuon (Grilled Pork Patty Spring Rolls) at Brodard
This is the one item that has seeded Brodard’s success and the reason there’s always a line. The nem nuong cuon is a spring roll to end all spring rolls. 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 that 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, its ingredients are a mystery. It’s possibly the most guarded secret recipe in the enclave, perhaps OC. For sure, there’s garlic, a little chile paste, maybe sugar. Magic and sorcery? More than likely.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.