Ethnic Eating 101: Vietnamese, Part 1

We're so lucky to live in Orange County. There are hundreds of thousands of người Việt (that's Vietnamese people to you) here, and they are the keepers of some of the lightest, freshest, most appealing flavor combinations in the entire world–and the best part? Little Saigon is a stone-cold bargain for dining. You can stuff yourself to the gill slits with amazing food for the price of an appetizer at one of those fancy Newport Beach temples of gastronomy. It can be intimidating at first, but it's well worth the effort to get past the language barrier.

Visiting our mouse-oriented theme park or our stunning beaches and trying to avoid the tourist traps and chains on Harbor Boulevard? Read on: the world of Southeast Asian cooking is only a couple of miles away. You can go home and rave to all of your friends about the food you discovered while the rest of the people on your business trip ate at IHOP.

If you're reading this from somewhere else, we'd love to have you visit. Really. But in the meantime, the introduction to Vietnamese food below will work anywhere, but you'll have to do your own research for where to seek these gems out. (We hear free, weekly, alternative newspapers often have awesome food sections.)

Get ready: we're here to give you the lowdown on what to eat, where to eat it, and, of course, how to eat it. For those of you who are old hands at eating in Little Saigon, feel free to chime in with all the stuff we missed.


The first Vietnamese dish most non-Vietnamese encounter is phở (say “fuh”, not “foe”). Phở is beef noodle soup; rice noodles and cuts of beef swimming in a rich, dark broth. This is Vietnamese comfort food, so loved that it's even eaten for breakfast. When I'm sick, it's not Jewish penicillin (chicken soup) I reach for, it's phở.

You order phở by the cuts of beef you want in it. If you're nervous about weird animal parts, go for tái (rare steak), chín (sliced flank steak) and nạm (brisket). If you're adventurous, order gầu (fatty brisket), gân (tendon) or sách (tripe), or try the đặc biệt (house special), which is usually an amalgam of all of the ingredients but may include things like bò viN;n (beef meatballs) or hành dấm (vinegared onions). There is also a chicken version of the soup, made with chicken broth, known as phở gà.

While the dish isn't at all spicy, you'll be given a plate of herbs, sprouts, sliced chiles and lime wedges to doctor the broth as you see fit. There will also be squeeze bottles of sweet hoisin sauce and spicy sriracha (called “rooster sauce” because the ubiquitous Huy Fong brand has a rooster on the bottle).

Where do you get it? The local favorite is Phở Thanh Lịch (14500 Brookhurst, Westminster), in a low-slung building on the southeast corner of Brookhurst and Hazard, but nearly any phở shop in Little Saigon will do; Phở 79 (9941 Hazard, Garden Grove), Phở 86 (14576 Brookhurst, Westminster), Phở Thăng Long (9550 Bolsa, Westminster). Phở Thanh Lich stands out because they have the best broth and if you ask, they'll put the rare beef on a separate plate so you can cook it to the perfect doneness in the hot broth. The best phở gà is probably at Phở Dakao (15536 Ward, Garden Grove). Phở is far and away the most commonly-found Vietnamese dish in the county; there's probably a phở shop near you.

There are so many phở shops in Orange County that there is essentially a price ceiling within Little Saigon; a bowl of phở is $5-$6.[

Chả Giò / Nem Rán

The Vietnamese answer to egg rolls goes by two names; the southern dialect's name, chả giò (say “chah yaw”), is by far the most common, given the origin of most of the Vietnamese immigrants to the U.S., but you may see nem rán (pronounced like it looks), the northern variant.

These little jewels are so far superior to their sad Chinese takeout counterparts that there's hardly any comparison. Vietnamese spring rolls have a pebbly skin, a more tender filling, and are easier to cut into pieces. They'll come with soft leaf lettuce, herbs and a sweet-garlicky-savory orange dipping sauce made of fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, garlic and chiles. Wrap one of the spring rolls in a lettuce leaf, add herbs, roll it up and dip it in the sauce.

While Brodard (9892 Westminster and 9100 Trask, Garden Grove) is famous for its chả giò, my favorites come from Viễn Đông (14271 Brookhurst, Garden Grove). You shouldn't be paying more than $3-$5 for a plate of 4 or 5 rolls.[

Bánh Mì

If you're a regular reader of Stick A Fork In It, you probably know about the French-Vietnamese fusion known as bánh mì, or Vietnamese sandwiches (“bánh” is the all-purpose Vietnamese word for things made from flour of any kind); Willy wrote about Battle Bánh Mì two weeks ago, in point of fact. The French occupation of Southeast Asia left the Vietnamese with a love for crusty baguettes and charcuterie; fortunately for our stomachs, the Vietnamese are amazing curers or meat and makers of pate.

If you're new to the world of bánh mì (say “bahn mee”), it is the single cheapest lunch you can get in Orange County. A typical bánh mì is a French roll or baguette about ten inches long, spread with (often garlicky) mayonnaise and filled with various kinds of charcuterie, then topped with pickled radish and carrot, cilantro, chile peppers, and occasionally cucumbers or savory Maggi seasoning. The toppings are standard; you pick the meats that go in.

The nervous of palate should try something simple like thịt nướng (grilled pork–while thịt means meat, the default meat in Vietnam is pork), bò nướng (grilled beef) or xíu mại (pork meatballs). Once you've popped your bánh mì cherry (and fallen in love with it–I don't know many people who don't like bánh mì), move on to real charcuterie such as chả lụa (white ham), chả quế (cinnamon-spiced pork loaf), or as with phở, get đặc biệt (the special) which will have a bunch of meats and usually pate. Bánh mì can also be eaten for breakfast, especially if you order trứng ốp la (sunny side up eggs).

While you're in the shop, pick up a plastic-wrapped tray of gỏi cuốn (literally, salad rolls), which are roast pork, shrimp, herbs, vegetables and rice noodles wrapped up in soft rice paper. They're a little bit chewy, and you dip them in the supplied tub of peanut sauce. Every bánh mì shop in Orange County has them out, and if you don't see them, ask and they'll bring you some fresh.

Where to get it? The usual recommendations are the various branches of Bánh Mì Chè Cali; the easiest one to deal with is on Brookhurst and McFadden (15551 Brookhurst, Westminster), but the most consistently good one is in the shopping center across Brookhurst from Target, just south of the 22 (13838 Brookhurst, Garden Grove). Other good places to get bánh mì would be Bánh Mì Chợ Củ (14520 Magnolia, Westminster) and Như Lần, on Garden Grove Blvd. and Harbor (13036 Harbor, Garden Grove). Bear in mind that these are not sit-down restaurants and you will want to eat the sandwiches relatively soon after you buy them. (If you're buying for later, ask for the vegetables on the side.)

Bánh mì have gone up in price, like everything else; you should still be able to find them for $2.25-$2.50 each, and at Bánh Mì Chè Cali, if you buy two sandwiches on French rolls (as opposed to baguettes) you get a third free.

Want more?

I'll be back next Friday with the second installment, in which we'll cover noodle salads, the Viet beefstravaganza known as bò 7 món, and mindbogglingly good broken rice plates.

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