You walk toward Saigon Supermarket realizing that in the more than two decades you’ve spent eating and shopping in Little Saigon, thinking you’ve explored every nook and cranny, you haven’t been here before. When the sliding doors of the market open, you immediately detect the smell of fried fish. It’s faint, but from the online reviews of the place you’re here to try—a banh xeo restaurant called Chef Peter Hung—you know you’re looking for a food court located on the second floor. The smell of cooking fish at least confirms you’re on the right track as you climb the stairwell, especially since you now start seeing signs with arrows that say “Saigon Fish Grill.”
But then you get to the top of the stairs, and your confidence begins to wane. You see no food court, just a closed door to the left and more hallway to the right. You look for more signs, but there aren’t any. Instead, the walls are lined with framed studio portraits of different Vietnamese families that continue all the way down the corridor. You see pictures of moms, dads, grandmas, cute babies, but also boudoir shots of women in lingerie mixed among them. Since there’s no other soul up here, the portraits start to creep you out. From this vantage point, the supermarket below you resembles a rat maze.
As you continue walking, the fried fish scent grows stronger. Soon, you find yourself in a space with stained ceiling tiles and a precarious pile of chairs thrown against the wall. But finally, past this, marked by a life-sized statue of an anthropomorphic pig in a chef’s uniform, you find the food court.
It immediately reminds you of those Asian hawker centers that Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern have been to on their shows. You suddenly feel as if you’re not in the U.S. anymore. This is confirmed when you finally find the stall marked by a canvas sign that says “Chef Peter Hung.” You don’t know how to order or where to sit; the stall has no cashier and no menu except for something that says “đặc biệt bánh xèo, tôm, và thịt, $6.50,” which you know from your limited knowledge of Vietnamese means “house special banh xeo with shrimp and meat.” Standing there, you look around and see a family digging into a whole broiled catfish, but it’s clearly from another restaurant. Confused and disoriented, you ask a woman with an apron where you can sit.
“Anywhere,” she motions to the seats. “All same.”
You sit down, but when you ask her how you can order the banh xeo, it becomes obvious that other than the three words she uttered, she knows no other English. That’s when a man in a polo shirt who was previously scrolling through Facebook on his laptop stands up and helps. With a smile he tells you, “This is like a food court, Burger King, McDonald’s, so you can sit anywhere, and I can take your order.”
You’re about to tell him that that’s not how food courts work, but you decide against it. Instead you confirm that you can order the banh xeo from Chef Peter Hung here. For a second, you wonder if he, himself, is Peter Hung.
You decide he’s not because at that same moment, you see another middle-aged man in a chef’s coat deliver banh xeos on paper plates to an adjacent table. Soon, he does the same for you. And what he serves is rocket-hot, just seconds from the pan. You take a chopstick to look under the fold of this oil-fried savory Vietnamese crepe and find bits of shrimp, ground pork and bean sprouts. You tear off a piece, tuck it into a piece of lettuce, roll it up with herbs, and dunk it into the plastic thimble of fish sauce. The temperature contrast is thrilling. And though it’s not as seasoned or refined as other banh xeos you’ve had, there’s a certain home-cooked quality to how the lacy edges crunch but the batter in the middle is barely set.
As you’re eating, you notice an older white gentleman dining alone at the next table. He’s devouring a plate of barbecued rabbit, which turns out to be one of the seven rabbit dishes that Peter Hung also offers. He tells you it’s great and, like you, he discovered the place through Yelp. But since this was his second trip, he’s more familiar with how things worked. He finishes his meal and asks Hung how much he owes. Hung tells him the amount, and the gentleman slaps the cash into the chef’s hands as he leaves.
In the meantime, a family of three wanders in, looking confused. As if on cue, the man in the polo shirt gets up from his seat, smiles, and tells them, “This is like a food court, Burger King, McDonald’s, so you can sit anywhere, and I can take your order.”
Chef Peter Hung, 10131 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 719-8255. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-8:30 p.m.; Fri., noon-3 p.m. & 5-8:30 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sun., 5-8:30 p.m. Banh xeo, $6.50. Cash only. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.