If you're familiar with the venerable Com Tam Thuan Kieu in Little Saigon, you'll hardly recognize the new Thuan Kieu Noodle & Grill in Irvine. It's owned by some part of the original the family, connected by its shared recipes; but the new place (and the other Thuan Kieu Noodle & Grills scattered throughout the county) seems geared for a neighborhood that expects pho from a Vietnamese place. And because of this, these new Thuan Kieu's dutifully pours good, satisfying, steaming bowls of the Vietnamese noodle soup. The original Thuan Kieu's do not.
But the restaurant is, at its heart, a Com Tam Thuan Kieu. It even says so in big bold letters on a wall inside the restaurant itself. So do yourself a favor: only try the pho after you attempt the rice plates, especially the one that's surrounded by 10 different toppings. Yes. 10 toppings.
When you order it, it's best to have at least one other person present–either to witness your gluttony or to share in it. You should also take pictures, because the plate doesn't look much like a plate; it's more like a party tray you bring to a potluck.
They start with a dome of steamed broken rice in the middle, then start piling on all kinds of protein from just about every edible animal that once mooed, oinked, clucked, or swam. Basically, it's loaded with just about everything the kitchen cooks. Grilled pork, fish, a wedge of steamed egg quiche, egg rolls, grilled chicken, tofu-wrapped shrimp cake, glistening Chinese sausages, bouncy Vietnamese sausage (nem nuoung), grilled beef short ribs, and grilled shrimp. All are excellent by themselves, but even better together in this crowded ensemble, bound by rice and doused with nuoc cham. But there's one more item on the plate: a veritable salad consisting of a wad of pickled carrot and daikon, lettuce and cucumber to cleanse your palate in between spoonfuls meat, which officially makes this the Spinal Tap of com tam dishes. Yes, these plates go to eleven.
Thuan Kieu Noodle & Grill, 3951 Irvine Blvd., Irvine, CA 92602, (714) 389-4800; tknoodlegrill.com