Turning Bread Into Pork at Thiên Ðang

While Thien Dang may be known for their vegan banh mi (which is, of course, excellent), I would encourage you to make your way to the rest of their menu, which is a sight to behold, and even better to eat.
Delicate rice sheets ready to be swaddled with pickled carrots and daikon and drenched in soy nuoc cham. Photo by Charisma Madarang

While Thiên Ðang Vegetarian Restaurant may be known for its excellent vegan bánh mìs, I would encourage you to take stock of the rest of its offerings, which is a sight to behold.

Inside the modestly sized restaurant, swaths of bean curd and rolls of pale soy pile up behind large glass refrigerators. Wicker baskets filled with plastic pine, neon-pink tulips and shiny red Christmas ornaments languish in the fluorescent light. The dining area wall is half-painted green, as though it were wrapped by a giant festive ribbon. The menu spans the length of the counter, side-by-side glowing screens displaying party-tray options, main entrées and appetizers.

If it’s your first time here, you must order the cơm chiên cá mặn gà, a brilliant, addicting vegan version of salted fish and chicken fried rice. Fashioned from soybeans, the salted “tuna” and marinated “chicken” are sautéed until their savory funk melds with the tender rice. Roughly chopped cilantro and ginger lifts up these deep flavors while thin slices of cooked cabbage and caramelized onion entangle like tumbleweeds. A good bite involves a bit of everything, but those forkfuls with just a little more snappy, sweet onion are perfect. You’ll also get a small bowl of clear, yellow broth plainly adorned with more cilantro, stems and all. It comes with every rice dish, and while a side, it might be one of the best items on the menu. Slow-cooked for three hours, the broth feels mildly viscous, with a gentle, honey-like flavor.

Since there’s a large photo of the bánh ướt posted next to the register, you’ll be curious about it. The English translation is “wet cakes,” which makes sense once you see the thin rice-flour crepes that come with small slabs of cinnamon “pork” and tangy sweet-and-sour nem chua. While the nem chua isn’t quite as convincing as the cinnamon-soy pork, it’s still delicious when swaddled with pickled carrots and daikon in the delicate rice sheets and drenched in the soy-based nuoc cham.

On your way out, grab a few dishes from the takeout counter, which houses two rows of ready-made vegan options. This particular menu seems to change frequently, so if you can, get the barbecue “pork,” which is nothing short of miraculous. Marked by its bright-cherry hue, the bean curd is braised in a mushroom oyster sauce until it becomes silky, luxurious and meaty. Bread crust is reborn as chewy, crispy pork skin. But it’s the bits of potato starch you’ll really want; they’re skillfully whipped into soft, almost greasy bits of candied fat. It’s these squishy, sweet pieces for which I always scrape the edges of my plate. 

Thiên Ðang Vegetarian Restaurant, 14253 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-4888; thiendangvegetarian.com.

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