Every winter, I go out to lunch with former interns who've gone on to bigger things, and few became bigger than Gray Beltran. He came to us as a UC Irvine literary journalism major during the summer of 2008 and immediately distinguished himself from others with a desire to learn, as well as the ability to do so quickly and smartly. He's now at The New York Times as a multimedia/graphics editor, living the good life in the Big Apple—but still, he misses Orange County. Mostly our food, of course.
“You just don't get this back there,” Gray said between slurps of his ferocious bún bò Hue while we ate at Hue Thuong in Garden Grove's part of Little Saigon. He had earlier asked if Hue Thuong sold pho; it did, I said, but that was like ordering a chicken pot pie in East Los Angeles—why? We were, after all, in a Central Vietnamese restaurant, with delights before us not usually seen in other OC Viet restaurants. Bún bò Hue is the star of the genre, an unapologetically funky morass of pork blood, tendon, liver, spice and tapioca noodles. “This will never become popular like pho,” I told Gray, “and it's a shame; it's better.” His man bun agreed.
More specialties: a solar system of bánh béo, awesome rice cakes topped with fried scallions in the center, and all the bánh béo placed around a bowl of fish sauce—crunchy, slurpy, tangy, great. I pigged out on a giant bowl of com hen: shredded taro, banana blossoms, a jungle of sharp Vietnamese herbs, white rice and a bunch of baby clams. Hue Thuong didn't offer the customary clam broth that goes with the dish, but it didn't matter; the meal's marine essence radiated with each chopstick-ful in my mouth.
Gray and I talked journalism woes and elections, but we mostly talked food. He had spent a couple of days in Los Angeles and hit up all of its hipster hot spots; I told him to grab lunch at Taco Maria, breakfast at Break of Dawn, and then go to Mercado and Anepalco for cocktails, among other recommendations. But next time Gray comes, I'll take him to a Northern Vietnamese restaurant—by then, he should have Dean Baquet's position. . . .
Hue Thuong, 9752 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 534-3040.