Last month, I went on a Little Saigon run with Dee Nguyen of Break of Dawn, perhaps the most underrated restaurant in OC not named Anepalco’s or Old Vine Café. We started at Cho Tam Bien on a Monday morning—me with three hours of sleep, Nguyen accompanied by his son and a college friend who flies down from the Bay Area every time Break of Dawn has a pop-up dinner. And Tam Bien was already slammed with elders getting their porridge, youngsters Instagramming every dish that came their way, and a line of people trying to figure out what they wanted for breakfast. “Not very busy right now,” Nguyen cracked, telling us that the line sometimes extends out the door.
Here is one of Little Saigon’s better delis, a place where you can sit and eat cheap or take any of the packaged, frozen or dried goods to go. There’s even a deli case with whole pig’s legs pointing up, ready for someone to take them home. Nguyen ordered light—we had three more places to eat at that morning. Out came the lemongrass sausage with a bowl of mam ruoc, the fermented shrimp paste that tastes like salty lightning and smells like sweat. We wrapped slices of the sausage with mint leaves, then dipped them in the mam ruoc—fresh, pungent, perfect. Even better was the goat curry, one of seven goat dishes available. Best of all was the duck cháo—duck porridge with a big ol’ cube of blood in the center, one of 12 porridges Tam Bien offers. Cháo is the most unappreciated breakfast in OC—come on, Afters guys: Hipsterize it!
“Better not be here for the next three weeks,” Nguyen warned as we left for our next spot. “Tet is going to make this place crazy.” With all due respect to the chingón chinito, that’s when you want to visit Cho Tam Bien. OC’s never really had a deli culture like back East, and not only is this place it—it’s better.
Cho Tam Bien, 9906 Westminster Ave., Ste. B, Garden Grove, (714) 636-2222.