I have a friend named Mike (who among us doesn't have a friend named Mike). Although his life doesn't revolve around food as much as mine does (read: he's not a food blogger), our tastes are often parallel. It was more than a decade ago (in college) that he tipped me off to Alerto's fish burrito; something I've been enjoying ever since. So if he likes something, I will too.
There is one point of contention where our opinions diverge: the guy despises anything burnt, scorched, or charred. He'd rather not see grill marks on his chicken breasts or on his burgers. And those bits of carbonized sauce on the ends of barbecued ribs? It tastes like grit to him, the equivalent of getting sand in his food.
Me? I think of it as extra flavor (oh-so-yummy carcinogens!!). A steak can be juicy, but it's not as good as it could be if there isn't just a little bit of crust and char.
Recently, Mike moved back to Orange County from The Valley, in search of milder climates, better opportunities, and of course, food. Since then, my itinerant dining companions and I have been re-acclimating him to the wonders of our cuisine. But after a whirlwind tour that stretched from our southern coasts to Fullerton, it was Mike who had a place to show us — a Little Saigon hole-in-the-wall he liked when he lived here all those years ago.
It was located at the corner of a strip mall that's a mirror image of every other strip mall on Bolsa Street. But on that Friday night, the scene inside was like a sped-up, time-lapse film sequence of Time Square at rush hour — busy with action and noise. Servers with armfuls of plates weaving between tables. People shoving rice and meat into their gullets. Customers coming and going.
In the middle of it all are ample meals of com tam, the Vietnamese broken rice dish topped with assortments of protein, accompanied by fish sauce for dousing and a bowl of hot broth for sipping.
With a napkin, I wiped my utensils clean (taken from a communal bucket on each table), getting it ready for my rice-and-meat combo. I had ordered com tam with a grilled pork chop as its anchor, surrounded by satellites of protein which included tau hu ky (shrimp paste deep-fried beneath a tofu skin wrapper), cha (ground pork steamed with egg) and Chinese sausage. To make it complete (and just because I can), I asked for a side of fried egg.
Though I would've preferred fresh tomato and cucumbers over the pickled cabbage they served as palate cleansers, it was refreshing. With the exception of the tau hu ky — which was too heavy, too dense and too rubbery when compared to others I've had before — I liked the meal. The pork chop had the requisite charring I demand, the Chinese sausage can do no wrong, and the cha tasted like homemade.
It wasn't until I looked over at what Mike was having that it occurred to me why he brought us here. His order of Vietnamese BBQ pork (thit nuong) was unlike any BBQ pork I'd ever seen. In fact, if the menu didn't call it that, I would have guessed it was boiled (sorry, no picture).
As pallid as present-day Michael Jackson, each ultra-lean, thin flap of meat had no trace of charring or browning. Curious, I asked for a sample. It tasted well-marinated — full of flavor, not too salty. It was also tender enough that it almost dissolved. YetI couldn't shake the fact that there was something inherently missing.
But Mike, he loved it. When he finished the plate, there wasn't a single grain of rice left.
Thanh De Nhat Com Tam Restaurant
9870 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683