Old Little Saigon is disappearing. The 1.5- and second-generation kids keep replacing ancient pho palaces and bikini coffeehouses with crawfish houses and waffle joints. Asian Gardens Mall now has an LED screen; Bolsa Avenue finally finished its renovation project, meaning snarling weekend traffic is as forgotten as Hi-Tek. And even most of the older restaurants that remain have upgraded in one way or another, the elders grudgingly putting on a new coat of paint and putting up websites.
Progress is inevitable, of course, and restaurant prices in Little Saigon have unfortunately moved forward along with it (oh, for the days when bánh mìs were a buck—that was only a decade ago!). But the past still thrives at Hu Tieu Thanh Xuan, the acknowledged king of the soup genre that finds surf and turf in a bowl of beauty. Thanh Xuan's décor is from the 1980s—mirrors on the walls, claustrophobic dining room, sans serif marquee faded by the sun—and the dress code for the staff is swap-meet chic (sweat shirts over dresses for the waitresses, jeans and polo shirts for the guys). But just as retro are the prices: $4 for the most underrated soup in OC.
Hu tieu consistently gets overlooked in conversations about Vietnamese cuisine because it seems so simple: clear pork stock and a dash of shrimp paste subsuming noodles (glass or egg), pork and fish cake. But it deserves more respect, and the multiple condiments at every table speak to the soup's spectacular essence. Pickled garlic, pickled Thai peppers, chile paste, vinegar—you toss all of that into the hu tieu, mix it up, and create a soup equal parts comfort and zing, safe and stunning. Then you find the hard-boiled quail egg among the morass, and split it in half; its float through the boiling broth liquefied the yolk inside, meaning a burst of umami spikes your grand creation. This is the dac biet at Thanh Xuan; nearly the rest of the menu is variations on this theme, including and excluding ingredients, finding the dish dry or with the broth on the side.
Congrats! Here is the Little Saigon that persists despite all the changes, the Little Saigon you should haunt before it's gone.