This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

I've slurped through Korean beef-bone soups that were as thick as Jell-O, enjoyed stews in which a fish's gaping mouth peeked through the broth, and have eaten menudo since before I could walk. But I've never encountered a soup funkier than the lau mam va rau prepared at CAY DUA, a tiny, fluorescent-lit dive in Santa Ana's section of Little Saigon.

Lau mam (the “va rau” part means “and herbs and vegetables” in Vietnamese) is a potage native to South Vietnam. It's the equivalent of an MRE, but without the dehydration and bad taste. Cooks boil multiple ingredients—herbs, fruits, spices, fish sauce, fish, pork and shrimp—in a shallow metal pot until everything reduces into a dense, murky broth the color of mud. A waitress then brings the pot to your table, puts it above a hot rock to keep it warm, and opens the lid. “It looks like death,” my lunch companion volunteered, her face slightly green. She wasn't too far off: The lau mam contained curled strips of pale pork, shrimp with tail intact, and random fish bits ranging from skin to fat to a body with mysterious bumps.

“Just shut up and eat it,” I snapped. We ladled the lau mam into smaller bowls, and then added the “va rau” part of the soup: rice noodles, mint, rau ram (a metallic-tasting purple herb), cabbage, lettuce, cucumber strips, lime wedges and two peppers. As we dug through the lau mam, other surprises awaited us: Pineapple chunks. Purple squashes. Lemon grass. More nasty-looking meat bits.

Combined with the herbs, the lau mam was as rich as chocolate—potent yet nuanced, thick but light on the palate, a liquid both powerful and concentrated. The various ingredients distinguished themselves in the broth—sweet, sour, fatty, bitter, spicy and salty zipped around my taste buds. And those meat chunks that made us shudder? We didn't eat those—too unsightly—but their flavor dominated the broth and our senses.

Cay Dua specializes in lau mam and other mam(forgive the lack of diacritical marks, but it's the “mam”with the breve and acute accent over the letter “a” that signifies “food prepared with fish”), and most of these dishes are similarly adventurous—pickled shrimp with pork, bún rieu oc, a vermicelli soup heavy with salty crab roe and buttery snails, an intriguing combination of jackfruit and pork that sounds better than it tastes (too salty and sweet for me). But Cay Dua also sells less-exotic meals. Everyone can enjoy the fresh bún salads with egg rolls, pork sausuage or barbecued pork (vegetarians can substitute tofu for the meats). Bánh xèo, meanwhile, is Norms as imagined in Saigon, a type of hearty omelet-pancake hybrid stuffed with vegetables and meat that could please even the most obstinate Know-Nothing.

CAY DUA, 3522 W. FIRST ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 839-7799.

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