Tuck and Roll

No secret in Little Saigon is more closely guarded than the recipe for Brodard's spring-roll sauce. Ask what's in it, and you will be met with an icy stare and another question: “Why are you asking?”

This is a substance that defies not only description, but also decryption: a thick, murky orange elixir that's served hot like a starchy soup, but too pungent and powerful to be eaten as one. Rumored ingredients include minced pork, coconut cream, garlic and sorcery. But since any attempt to smuggle in a mass spectrometer will result in ejection from the restaurant, it leaves the intrepid diner with only one course of action—to enjoy it as a dipping sauce for their equally famous nem nuong rolls.

Until recently, the only place to get this culinary dynamic duo was at the original Brodard in Garden Grove—a Little Saigon institution hidden behind a 99-Cent-Only store, in a secret alleyway, next to a Dumpster. Cloaked from view, it can be found only by bringing a friend who has prior knowledge of its location, or a finely tuned divining rod. When one finally manages to find the restaurant, one also finds its treasure of an appetizer: a stogie-shaped, luminous rice-paper wrap stuffed with a ruddy, dense SPAM-like concoction made of pork or shrimp, lettuce, cucumber and the crunchy, deep-fried skin of an egg roll. And of course, there's plenty of that top-secret sauce for dunking.

Now there's a second Brodard location that serves those same rolls and glorious sauce. And not only is it easily visible from Highway 22, but it's housed in a bona fide mansion, as well. Though located mere blocks from its much-admired forebear, this new restaurant, dubbed Brodard Chateau, is a world away—and social class removed—from the former's cafeteria atmosphere.

Prettier than its dowdier, older sister, the Chateau is a 10-month-old debutante already being courted by longtime Brodard fans and new suitors unfamiliar with its Vietnamese roots. Frilly touches abound in its space, which is as dimly lit as a top-end steakhouse. Throughout the multiroomed building, contemporary furnishings mix with Asian design elements, as though a Pottery Barn collided with a Buddhist temple.

While its heart still beats as a Vietnamese restaurant, like most Americanized children of first-generation immigrants, it's fluent in English and yearns to break out of the Little Saigon cocoon. It does so by reaching out to the largely untapped market of Vietnamese-food-lovers who are too intimidated to dive into the culinary deep end of Bolsa Street without an Asian friend in tow. Here at Brodard Chateau, those individuals can come unaccompanied, be seated in plush chairs, and feel comfortable knowing the menus will be leather-bound, the staff will speak English and the prices will be exorbitant.

The costliest items offered exist exclusively in a section of the menu labeled “At the Chateau.” The most expensive was the New Zealand rack of lamb, which I found to be aptly cooked to a medium-rare, but no better than those I've had elsewhere. Nevertheless, I gripped the Frenched cutlets like they were good ol' barbecued ribs and tore into meat with my bare teeth. Blessed with an effortless chew, their tender, sanguine flesh went down smoother and silkier than beef. Less impressive was everything else on the plate. A mound of crimson-hued fried rice clashed with the red-wine reduction, and a steamed-vegetable assortment had no business being anywhere near my perfect lamb chops.

The filet mignon—the second-priciest item—was served with the same ho-hum vegetable roundup and paired with a perky sauce studded with green peppercorns. Though not as spectacular as I had hoped, the steak was still a better buy than the steamed Chilean sea bass, which was buried under a messy avalanche of bell peppers and tomatoes, browbeaten by a salty black-bean sauce, and then upstaged by the sopping-wet bed of glass noodles lying beneath it. The subtlety of this demure piece of fish was all but lost in the shuffle—a lamentable fate for a species so highly sought-after.

Much of the Chateau's seafood fared better as appetizers: soggy but tender rings of fried calamari frolicked with flash-fried garlic, fistfuls of spicy scallions and sliced jalapeños; two baked clamshells stuffed with clam meat, crab and shrimp came with a veritable garden's worth of fresh herbs; and a crawfish and chopped-jackfruit salad featured a fermented soybean dressing that looked like peanut butter, smelled like feet and tasted like a naughtier version of miso.

The dishes in the more bourgeois areas of the menu were even more satisfying. Cribbed from its sister restaurant, wispy strands of glass noodles cavorted with generous lump crab morsels and red onions in a simple yet lively stir-fry. But of course, who could forget the reason why anyone goes to a Brodard establishment in the first place: the nem nuong rolls and their sauce.

Two came to an order, but since the dipping liquid was served in tiny ramekins and not the usual soup bowl, I had to carefully ration it so that every section of the roll got just the right amount of sauce.

Then it occurred to me: I paid enough for this meal—I can ask for more! But as I found out yet again, even here at Brodard Chateau, no amount of money will ever get anyone there to spill the beans about what's in that damned sauce!


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