In the waning afternoon light, with its faded lotus and modest emerald awning, Hoa Sen seems almost ethereal. Even the plastic stools stacked like poker chips appear serene. And when you enter, this feeling lingers. But the interior is not unlike many Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants in the area; just as in other places, glowing televisions with Buddha grace the screens and neon orchids loom in the background.
When the waitress arrives, you’ll realize you need to order and shake yourself out of your reverie. The spring rolls are almost obligatory here, with layered, fried egg-roll wrappers making for an unexpected crunch between small slabs of meaty barbecue “pork.” It’s not unusual to meet a couple from Los Angeles that have made the trek just for the little bundles. The bánh xèo, a thin rice pancake the size of your forearm and curiously titled “Vietnamese pizza” on the menu, comes served with the usual bouquet of dark-purple shiso and lettuce. Hoa Sen’s bánh xèo is crunchier and simpler than, say, the version you’ll find at Westminster’s Golden Flower Veggie. But the crispier texture works in its favor, creating an almost chip-like bite that contrasts brilliantly with the soft, meaty tofu cubes and bean sprouts inside.
Flanked by slices of bean curd speckled with whole peppercorn, the bánh cuon is homey. While the sliced “meatballs” can be skipped, as the peppercorn can be unpleasant against the plain flavor, the soft, gummy rice sheets create the perfect blanket for swaddling the funky minced mushrooms and tofu.
If you begin to notice steaming plates of vegetables being ushered to the next table over, take it as a sign to try the pho áp chao giòn. Wide, thick noodles are pan-fried into a caramelized, golden nest that might remind you of something sticky and sweet you ate at a fair once, while the top remains a slippery layer of tender noodles. Glistening bok choy, broccoli and ribbed carrots sautéed in garlic and soy sauce are gently placed on top, along with wedges of browned tofu. You’ll want to mix in the little pile of cilantro in there, as it makes all the difference in distinguishing the flavors in this complex dish.
The ca kho can also be excellent; quartered tofu “catfish” is braised in velvety nuoc màu, a dark and bittersweet caramel sauce found at the heart of many Vietnamese dishes. It can be a precarious dish, and the last time I got it, the “catfish” was cooked too long, resulting in something a little too chewy. Still, the hot-and-sweet “skin” maintained that coveted fatty, silky texture, so I’ll probably order it again anyway.
Hoa Sen Vegetarian Restaurant, 12180 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 537-0077.