If Little Saigon were Vegas, Bolsa Avenue would be its Fremont Street, and the intersection of Westminster Boulevard and Brookhurst Street would be where Las Vegas Boulevard meets Flamingo Road. The corner is arguably one of the busiest and buzziest in the Vietnamese enclave, boasting two of its most popular restaurants, Brodard and Boiling Crab, which are–stretching the analogy a little further–its Bellagio and Caesars Palace.
The newest and hottest here is Garlic & Chives.
You might recognize the space. Until late last year, it used to be Lua Bistrot, a sleek café known for its cheap steaks and what you fell back on when the wait at Brodard was too unbearable. But in the two months it has been open, Garlic & Chives has become the star attraction at the Mall of Fortune (the MGM Grand of our Vegas). Word of mouth has spread that the restaurant serves a killer salmon-belly appetizer and that it's the second restaurant by the owners of Binh Dan, the Little Saigon goat meat institution whose specialty is a seven-course meal featuring goat-blood pudding and a goat stew that Gustavo Arellano says in his review is "meant to mimic the flavor of dog."
But Garlic & Chives is nothing like Binh Dan. The menu is expansive, focused on no particular specialty and billed as "Gourmet Asian Fusion." You can have porridge, follow it with a sizzling skillet of steak and eggs, then twirl up garlic butter noodles akin to the kind Beverly Hills' Crustacean serves to celebrities. Perhaps the best evidence that Garlic & Chives is just cooking whatever the hell it wants (and it's really good at it) is the version of corn cheese it serves bubbling on a hot plate–a dish usually found in Little Seoul drinking establishments on the other side of the 22 freeway. And then there are the chicken wings it calls "Holy Crunchy Chicken," which tastes as though it uses both Korean gochujang and Vietnamese fish sauce in its sticky-spicy glaze.
About the only predictable constant at Garlic & Chives is the garlic, which it uses prodigiously. The amount and variety of it that Garlic & Chives incorporates into its dishes makes LA's the Stinking Rose seem Nosferatuan by comparison. And in the case of the golden-fried bits found in nearly everything cooked here (especially the house-special roasted whole crab), the kitchen regards the substance as though it were magic dust. And it is. Order the hot-pot dish called lau–which comes with an array of raw seafood, meat and vegetables for you to cook tableside in a simmering broth–and the servers might offer you some more garlic to dump into an already flavor-packed soup.
Garlic also adorns that salmon-belly dish, already perfect in its own right, but further elevated by it. But it's in these lightly floured, crispy-fried curls of fish that the restaurant has introduced Orange County to its most inspired salmon dish. You don't eat this dish; you experience it with wide-eyed disbelief that salmon could melt so readily in your mouth, as though it were ice cream. There are other appetizers, such as spring rolls stuffed with more salmon and a second chicken wing appetizer that's served with so much raw minced garlic it renders your person unapproachable for hours. But that salmon belly is what you have to order first and foremost.
If anything comes close to its greatness, it's the "Spicy Garlic Toothpick Lamb," little cocktail skewers of fatty, deep-fried lamb morsels tossed with dried chiles and whole roasted garlic cloves, all sweetness beneath the gaminess. You pass it around the table, hoping some will remain when the plate comes back to you. But then, everything you order here is shared family style, including the spicy baby clams–stir-fried with chiles, herbs and crushed peanuts, all of it is meant to be scooped up with rice-cracker shards.
One of the most compelling main courses is the one that starts with clay-pot-cooked rice. A whole section of the menu contains different iterations, all featuring rice with bottoms turned crispy and golden, then topped with everything from Chinese sausages, chicken and pork to eggs, or even a separate plate of classic bo luc lac, wok-kissed cubes of filet mignon tossed with onions and bell peppers.
Also great: the pan-fried noodle, for which the kitchen oil-crisps the fresh wide rice noodles you typically see used for pad see ew, transforming them into crunchy-chewy swatches resembling torn sections of a woven basket. They're then smothered in gravy with vegetables and either beef, seafood or both. Like nearly every dish here, it hovers around $8, which proves that unlike the price differentials between Downtown Las Vegas and the Strip, every part of Little Saigon is cheap, cheap, cheap!
Garlic & Chives, 9892 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 591-5196. Open Sun.-Tues. & Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer and wine.