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Ethnic Eating 101: Vietnamese, Part 1

We're so lucky to live in Orange County. There are hundreds of thousands of người Việt (that's Vietnamese people to you) here, and they are the keepers of some of the lightest, freshest, most appealing flavor combinations in the entire world--and the best part? Little Saigon is a stone-cold bargain for dining. You can stuff yourself to the gill slits with amazing food for the price of an appetizer at one of those fancy Newport Beach temples of gastronomy. It can be intimidating at first, but it's well worth the effort to get past the language barrier.

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ccdoh1 @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Visiting our mouse-oriented theme park or our stunning beaches and trying to avoid the tourist traps and chains on Harbor Boulevard? Read on: the world of Southeast Asian cooking is only a couple of miles away. You can go home and rave to all of your friends about the food you discovered while the rest of the people on your business trip ate at IHOP.

If you're reading this from somewhere else, we'd love to have you visit. Really. But in the meantime, the introduction to Vietnamese food below will work anywhere, but you'll have to do your own research for where to seek these gems out. (We hear free, weekly, alternative newspapers often have awesome food sections.)

Get ready: we're here to give you the lowdown on what to eat, where to eat it, and, of course, how to eat it. For those of you who are old hands at eating in Little Saigon, feel free to chime in with all the stuff we missed.

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avlxyz @ flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0
Phở

The first Vietnamese dish most non-Vietnamese encounter is phở (say "fuh", not "foe"). Phở is beef noodle soup; rice noodles and cuts of beef swimming in a rich, dark broth. This is Vietnamese comfort food, so loved that it's even eaten for breakfast. When I'm sick, it's not Jewish penicillin (chicken soup) I reach for, it's phở.

You order phở by the cuts of beef you want in it. If you're nervous about weird animal parts, go for tái (rare steak), chín (sliced flank steak) and nạm (brisket). If you're adventurous, order gầu (fatty brisket), gân (tendon) or sách (tripe), or try the đặc biệt (house special), which is usually an amalgam of all of the ingredients but may include things like bò viên (beef meatballs) or hành dấm (vinegared onions). There is also a chicken version of the soup, made with chicken broth, known as phở gà.

While the dish isn't at all spicy, you'll be given a plate of herbs, sprouts, sliced chiles and lime wedges to doctor the broth as you see fit. There will also be squeeze bottles of sweet hoisin sauce and spicy sriracha (called "rooster sauce" because the ubiquitous Huy Fong brand has a rooster on the bottle).

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jypsygen @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Where do you get it? The local favorite is Phở Thanh Lịch (14500 Brookhurst, Westminster), in a low-slung building on the southeast corner of Brookhurst and Hazard, but nearly any phở shop in Little Saigon will do; Phở 79 (9941 Hazard, Garden Grove), Phở 86 (14576 Brookhurst, Westminster), Phở Thăng Long (9550 Bolsa, Westminster). Phở Thanh Lich stands out because they have the best broth and if you ask, they'll put the rare beef on a separate plate so you can cook it to the perfect doneness in the hot broth. The best phở gà is probably at Phở Dakao (15536 Ward, Garden Grove). Phở is far and away the most commonly-found Vietnamese dish in the county; there's probably a phở shop near you.

There are so many phở shops in Orange County that there is essentially a price ceiling within Little Saigon; a bowl of phở is $5-$6.
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