10 Things You Must Eat in Little Saigon
In creating this list, I asked myself this question: Where would I take out-of-town visitors to explore the wonders of our Little Saigon? And what would I have them eat? In all honesty, I came up with more than you see below. My notepad is filled with at least a dozen more tasty bits I didn't have room for. Little Saigon has too much great food and too much ground to cover.
To keep it simple, I narrowed it down to what I think is an essential item from each place I mention (or simply what I personally seek out). In the mix, I have a produce stand, a dessert joint, a sandwich shop, and of course plenty of noodle soups.
But if you asked Gustavo, Dave, Shuji, Anne Marie and Niyaz, I'm sure they'd come up with a different set of recommendations altogether; and so would you. So share them! I challenge you to limit your list to ten!
10. Chuoi Chien (Fried Bananas) at Thach Che Hien Khanh
Thach Che Hien Khanh is the preeminent purveyor of all things sweet and dessert in Little Saigon. There are lines even when there shouldn't be, in the middle of the afternoon. People patiently queue up to order from steam trays filled with the sugary, the bean-based and the sticky-rice-anchored. What you order gets piled into take-out containers, sold and then consumed for later. But they also make one of the best fried bananas. They will be stacked out in the open, sold two for a dollar. Biting into one will be like that first tap of a spoon on a creme brulee: there's just a slight resistance that will quickly give way to the blubbery custard beneath. A crunchy crust of caramel makes every part of this fried fruit club perennially crispy even after sitting there out in the elements for probably at least an hour since its birth.
9. Rambutan From Ba Tu Trai Cay Ngon
Ba Tu Trai Cay Ngon sells fruit and produce indigenous of Southeast Asia--all that is weird and wonderful but are otherwise hard to come by the further north you go from the equator. Some are piled in neat pyramids. Some hang above your head in pre-weighed plastic bags. Others, like jackfruit and durian, are safely kept at waist level. These infamous fruits, sporting spikes as menacing as medieval weaponry, have been known to kill men when they make their free fall from trees. Your quarry, should it be the season, is the fruit called rambutan, which is as weird as the rest of the lot, but perhaps even weirder. As "rambut" means hair in Indonesian, the golf ball-sized fruit are indeed hairy (furry, even) resembling the dangling testicles of a red, alien creature. If you're lucky and they're available, you can probably haggle the price down. It will be expensive. To eat them, dig into each fruit with both thumbs. And like a Russian nesting doll, the two leathery outer hemispheres will split and separate, revealing the white translucent flesh of the fruit beneath. Grip the fruit by your front teeth and pop the thing out of its socket. As you maneuver it in your mouth, scrape the juicy meat from the almond-like pit. The texture of rambutan, for those who haven't had it, is exactly like a lychee. But the flavor is tangier, sharper, livelier, just like the Little Saigon street scene you'll buy it from.
8. Tofu at Dong Phuong Tofu
You know those white, brick-sized tofu blocks you see at Asian markets all around Orange County? Ever wonder where they're made? Well, it's here: Dong Phuong Tofu factory in Little Saigon, which, in my opinion, is the best supplier of this wonder curd, local or otherwise. It's true that when you buy it at a supermarket, the prices aren't marked up by much; buying it at Dong Phuong won't save you more than a few cents. But you should still buy it here anyway. The reason is freshness. The tofu will not be days or hours old, but minutes, sometimes even seconds from the tofu press. In fact, it's so fresh, it's steaming, scalding to the touch, almost virginal in its purity. What do you do with it? Anything. Everything. Dong Phuong's tofu is merely a springboard to culinary greatness. Forget about it healthiness. That's a given. It's just a great ingredient. Brine them in a mixture of garlic, salt and water and deep fry them until they float like golden rafts. Use them in stir fries, in soup, make ice cream. Whatever! The world is your tofu.