The Explosion of Flavor at Quan Hen
The problem with being a Mỹ trắng and wanting to eat well in Little Saigon is that restaurants tend to dumb down their English names: the English sign will say "Vietnamese Restaurant", but their specialities are nearly always stenciled in Vietnamese on the front window. If you can learn a few words such as cá (fish), bò (beef), gà (chicken) and dê (goat), the names of the noodles, like phở, bún, mì and hủ tiếu, and a few words for preparation like nướng (grilled), chiên (fried) and canh (soup) you're halfway there.
Quan Hen, perched at the end of an L-shaped, two-story plaza at Magnolia and Westminster that also contains the very well-known Ngu Binh, says it's a Vietnamese restaurant. It's not a phở shop, though; It is not a bún bò Huế shop. It sells these items, but the dishes listed on the front window are cá nướng da dòn (baked catfish with crispy skin), lẩu mắm (anchovy hot pot), and lẩu dê (goat hot pot).
We stumbled across it last weekend after having visited Ngu Binh in the same plaza for their excellent bánh bèo chén (steamed rice paste in individual dishes). The restaurant smelled pungently of anchovy, which is always a good sign, and it was busy even though it was about to close. After looking around at other tables, we ordered a small baked catfish ($20).
The table was suddenly overflowing with plates: a huge plate of nearly every kind of herb I've ever seen, including rau răm and diếp cá, a cellophane-wrapped package of bánh tráng (rice paper) and a large bowl of hot water to soak them in, a plate of rice noodles, a dish of tamarind-spiked fish sauce, a dish of pineapple-spiked, anchovy-laden mắm nêm, and sliced cucumbers to give the rolls some heft.
Then the fish came out, splayed open, and longer than the plate it was carried on. Our server made the first few cuts into the flesh for us, and we dug in. Soak the rice paper until it's all wet, then quickly put fish, cucumber, herbs, and noodles in the middle of the paper. Roll it tightly like a burrito before it sticks to the plate, and dip it in your choice of sauce--the darker mắm nêm is better.
My mouth exploded with flavor and texture. Soft flesh, crispy skin, crunchy vegetables, grassy herbs, pungent and sweet dipping sauce. It was absolutely incredible.
My only complaint would be that during the baking, some of the crispy skin got lost, which meant that some of the outer flesh was baked a little bit too long. Also, be diligent about getting every morsel of meat from the fish, including the cheeks; if you just use the "easy pickin's", you'll get about six rolls from the smaller fish; if you are careful, you can fill up three or four more.
Given the weather this weekend, we may go back to try the lẩu--if we can be steered away from the fish.
Quan Hen, 14092 Magnolia St., Westminster; 714-898-2322; no website.