10 Things You Must Eat in Little Saigon
2. Com Tam (Broken Rice Plates) at Com Tam Thuan Kieu
Broken rice, or com tam, used to be considered discards from the threshing process, the cheapest rice meant for the poorest people. But alas, com tam turned out to be the good stuff. The smaller bits of rice cook to a more interesting chew than the whole grain. Now there are restaurants that feature it as the centerpiece of a dish, eaten with simply-grilled meats, fresh cut vegetables, and a bowl of sweetened fish sauce called nuoc cham. Virtually every restaurant and pho joint in Little Saigon has a version of it, but few actually specialize in it like Com Tam Thuan Kieu. Out front, toothless, chain-smoking old men sit and chat, no doubt reminiscing about a time in recent history when Ho Chi Minh City was still called Saigon. Inside, the menu--which features broken rice and meat pairings in sixty-four permutations--is dizzying. The specialty of the house is #7 and #8, two dishes which takes the name of the restaurant itself. Take either one and be prepared to feast: these rice plate masterpieces are topped with seven mouth-watering items heaped onto a generous mound of rice...broken rice, of course.
1. Pho (Beef Noodle Soup) at Pho Thanh Lich
The room smells of the sour tang of dried mops, mildewed dish rags and sweat. There are what appear to be Christmas garlands left up from holidays long forgotten. Around you, like-minded thrifty souls gather, the restaurant filling up the later it gets. Here, like nowhere else, there's the feeling of community among strangers, a shared experience of something good, something special: the pho. Here is pho as pho is meant to be: cheap, hot and good. Thanh Lich's soup is a wondrous elixir of clearness, ladled out from vats as tall as a desk chair, a pot simmered long and slow, inside the vessel is a liquid lovingly looked after. It's poured scalding onto the clumped mound of noodles at a palate-singing temperature. Deep is the flavor, a tang, a freshness, a beef juice diluted to a brew as invigorating to slurp as the beach air is to breathe. The whole bowl tells the story of beef, with the broth the constant narrator and the cuts of cattle, from the very tender to the very, very tender, an indispensable character list of protagonists. Tai, rare steak, just melts. Beef tendons get boiled down to an aspic-like gel. And the tripe tastes as tripe should taste, with some of its barnyard stink still distinguishable. The toppings, they almost don't really matter. Bean sprouts, the saw-tooth herb, basil, lemon and jalapeño become chatter, noise, interruptions to a symphony that already has the harmony in place. Above all, this soup doesn't inhibit the kind of thirst lesser pho broths do, a sign of its uncompromising pedigree and lack of MSG, a known and oft-abused shortcut that's unthinkable here.Follow Stick a Fork In It on Twitter @ocweeklyfood or on Facebook! And don't forget to download our free Best Of App here!
14500 Brookhurst St., Westminster, CA