The sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam are ubiquitous in Westminster, home to Orange County's Little Saigon and the world's largest concentration of Vietnamese immigrants. In fact, with a minor suspension of reality inside the city's Asian Garden Mall (9200 Bolsa Ave., 714-379-9913), anyone can mentally transport themselves to the other side of the planet and into the Southeast Asian nation's urban settings. That imaginary flight inside the two-story mall is aided by the usual lack of Caucasian presence—except for elderly, Barney Fife-like security guards—as well as the absence of American chain stores. You may not be interested in clothing shops catering to the tastes of newer immigrants or older ones who've resisted assimilation, but browse the jewelry, music and Buddhist paraphernalia stores.
Though still architecturally the centerpiece of Little Saigon, the mall's prominence in the community is fading as the number of American-born Vietnamese begin to outnumber their immigrant relatives, exposing substantial generational gaps. This clash was recently on display at Kim Su (10530 Bolsa Ave., 714-554-6261), the popular dim sum and seafood restaurant. At a table of 13 sat four generations of one family. The oldest two, in their 80s, couldn't speak English though they've been here for 20 years; the middle generations spoke both languages; and the younger ones—each focused on iPhone activities—were clueless about anything their grandparents uttered.
Before Vietnamese candidates began to rise in political power, local conservative-government leaders named Westminster the “All-American City.” The move may have been a final grasp of a cranky, white-dominated establishment and a slap at the influx of post-1975 war refugees, who in the early days preferred launching their own businesses rather than patronizing American ones. But the motto works today because no city in the region has undergone a greater transformation, underscoring the value to this nation of adding Vietnamese citizens.
This positive, multicultural collision (American and South Vietnam flags fly together all over the place) has resulted in old-school Vietnamese restaurants such as Thanh My (9553 Bolsa Ave., 714-531-9540), Seafood Cove (9211 Bolsa Ave., 714-293-3682) and, on the Garden Grove border with Westminster, Vien Dong (14271 Brookhurst St., 714-531-8253) thriving with continuous flows of multi-ethnic customers just as much as the more Americanized dining creations of younger entrepreneurs such as Quan Hy (9727 Bolsa Ave., 714-775-7175) and Tasty Garden (9433 Bolsa Ave., 714-839-8580). Specializing in serving delicious lunchtime food to go, Lee's Sandwiches (9261 Bolsa Ave., 714-901-5788) opened its first store here and is now an institution that gives diners another option to the prevalent staple of nourishment in the community: pho.
But there are non-publicized treats, too. For example, an Arco gas station (14511 Brookhurst St., 714-531-0160) here routinely sells gas as much as 65 cents cheaper per gallon than stations down the road in Huntington Beach. And shopping bargains extend to seafood: ABC (8970 Bolsa Ave., 714-379-6161) is a massive treasure-trove of Vietnamese grocery items, and its jumbo-sized, live crabs sell for more than double 10 miles away in Newport Beach. People looking for physical relaxation have a selection of dozens of (non-sexual) $15, flat-fee, hour-massage salons employing mostly male and female Chinese immigrants. We'd recommend a shop, but, in all honesty, the discount rate comes with a risk of not finding that 1-in-4 therapist with decent skills that will soothe your pains.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.