10 Essential Little Saigon Restaurants
If you're not planning to go to the Tet Festival at the OC Fairgrounds this weekend, but still want to eat Vietnamese food, here are 10 of my essential Little Saigon eateries to try. This is the list I've given to co-workers, visiting relatives, and out-of-town friends who've asked for help in navigating Bolsa Street and its surrounding tributaries.
Some are hardly restaurants. But in Little Saigon even some of the restaurants are hardly restaurants. The point is the food, and it's some of the best that can be made, at prices you aren't likely find anywhere else but the greatest Vietnamese enclave outside of actual Vietnam.
As usual: THE LIST IS IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER.
Yes, there are more where these came from (I had to whittle down my list from about 30), so there are a lot of worthy places missing. Fill the gaps in with a comment, would you?
Chúc mừng năm mới!
1. Banh Mi Che Cali
After you graduate from Lee's Sandwiches' rudimentary course in Vietnamese sandwiches, come to Banh Mi Che Cali for your advanced training. Even with inflation, the price for one of the best banh mi sandwiches in OC will be lower than the cheapest fast-food footlong you see advertised on TV and by sign-twirlers. The Buy-Two-Get-One-Free deal--the way everyone buys sandwiches--is always offered, working out to about $5 for three sandwiches. These overstuffed, two-fisted hoagie begin with rice-flour-imbued breads that bite with an assertive crunch and a crumb as light as a cloud. Start with the dac biet, the house special, in which such cold cuts as headcheese, Vietnamese ham and cha lua are layered on thick, tucked among a schmear of liver paté, cilantro, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon. For the thit nuong, you get ruddy strips of well-marinated grilled pork. Order the chicken, and you'll find the meat shredded into a hash prone to absorbing the squirts of Maggi sauce and the slathering of the creamy house mayo. Complete your visit with a few tubs of che, a catch-all phrase to describe Vietnamese desserts ranging from warm to cold.
2. Boiling Crab
Know this: wait times are routinely long and frustrating. But the payoff is worth every minute lost to time. The hours spent thumb-twiddling outside will eventually get you a wax-paper-draped table inside and a bib tied around your neck. You'll then feast (with your hands!) like never before on frigid oysters, crab of different persuasions, crawfish when they're in season and good ol' shrimp. Ask for everything "Whole-Shabang," in which the food is coated with an ingenious concoction made from butter, lemon juice, Zatarain's and lots of garlic--basically every flavor they have mixed into a bag. Opting for mild is sufficient. Anything hotter requires eye protection, lest that stuff accidentally splashes into your sockets and causes blindness. The shrimp soaks up the sauce like a sponge and gives you the most bang for your buck. Strip each critter of its head, suck the fatty goop
from its skull, being careful not to let its sharp appendages poke you a new orifice. Dig into the underbelly, and disrobe it of its shell and tail. Eat the spindly legs and take the sweet meat for once last dip in that sauce before eating. This is what you've been waiting for.
The nem noung cuon is the one item that has seeded Brodard's success and the reason there's always a line. It's a spring roll to end all spring rolls. Inside a wetted cylinder of rice paper hides lettuce, a slender piece of deep fried egg roll skin, cucumber, and nem nuong, a ruddy concoction made of pork or shrimp which isn't quite a sausage and not really SPAM, but a combo of the two. A lot of places in Little Saigon can construct a fine nem nuong cuon, but only Brodard seems to have perfected the sauce that makes it sing. Halfway between soup and dip, what's in it is a mystery. It's possibly the most guarded secret recipe in the enclave, perhaps OC. For sure there's garlic, a little chili paste, maybe sugar. Magic and sorcery? More than likely.