It’s the cultural capital for 400,000 Vietnamese–and the home of many innovative restaurants.
By Linda Burum, Special to the Los Angeles Times
Bolsa Avenue is an eight-lane river of traffic coursing through the entrepreneurial heart of Orange County’s Little Saigon. Thirty seven years ago the fall of Saigon drove thousands of Vietnamese to flee here with little more than memories; even 20 years ago, when I first encountered Little Saigon, it was only
a small, hesitant patch of businesses in Westminster and Garden Grove.
Today, it’s the cultural and commercial capital of Southern California’s 400,000-strong Vietnamese community–the largest outside Vietnam itself–and it covers 4 1/2 square miles, spilling over into Santa Ana and Fountain Valley. In Southland fashion, its businesses are concentrated in malls, such as the majestic Asian Gardens, looking like the entry to the Forbidden City.
Right across Bolsa Avenue is Asian Village, a two-story complex including a gargantuan supermarket surrounded by frescoes of Vietnamese life.
In the early days, most Little Saigon restaurants offered simple popular items. But competition has bred new places featuring regional dishes or specialized cooking techniques.
At Quan HY the kitchen turns out a Southern California version of Hue-style cuisine. The capital of Vietnam’s emperors, Hue’s cooking emphasizes the sort of tricky techniques and meticulous presentations you might associate with Nathan Myhrvold.
The classic banh beo, silver-dollar-sized rice pancakes, often thick and chewy elsewhere, almost float to the table. Likewise the banh it ram, eight sticky rice dumplings stuffed with slivered shiitake mushrooms sitting on crisp, puffy rice disks maintain the distinct texture of each element.
There’s more to Hue than court cooking, though; its cold winters may have inspired the famous chile-laced soup bun bo Hue. At Quan HY, there are pork slices and beautiful triangles of shrimp pa^te in the crimson broth instead of the usual ungainly pork hock. (For more traditional Hue-style food, try Thanh Noi in the Fortune Mall on Westminster.)
My litmus test for quality in a Vietnamese restaurant is the platter of fresh herbs and vegetables present at every meal. The Vietnamese use these for seasoning the way people in other cultures use pickles or salt and pepper. The herbs give each bite a fresh, explosive complexity. Dipping sauces or lime wedges also come with most dishes, so the final flavor of each mouthful is composed by the diner.
At Ha Noi, a northern-style restaurant famous for duck and dried bamboo shoot soup, our group was served an exemplary herb tray–not only the usual lettuce, mint, cilantro and basil but also rau ram (a cilantro-like herb), ngo om (rice paddy herb), ngo gai (saw-tooth coriander), absolutely fresh morning glory leaves and rau tia to (amaranth leaves).
Ha Noi has recently moved from its hole-in-the-wall quarters to a pleasantly stylish room. Barbecued fish on a sizzling platter (No. 1), arrives on its iron tray in a billow of smoke, still cooking (yet not overcooked), on a bed of caramelized onions and almost hidden under a thatch of fresh dill. With it come roasted peanuts, sliced onions and chiles, rice vermicelli and big puffy rice crackers to complete the textural symphony.
Regulars travel for hours for Ha Noi’s bun cha Ha Noi (No. 3), a street-food favorite hawked from makeshift sidewalk barbecues in Vietnam. Its sliced pork and two walnut-sized pork burgers, completely permeated with the flavor of charcoal grilling and doused with a vaguely sweet, garlicky marinade.
Wrapped in lettuce leaves, the fish or beef are eaten taco-style, along with your choice of herbs, scooped onto rice crackers, or mixed with noodles and eaten as a salad. The kaleidoscopic sensations of sharp herbs with meat, sauce and noodles are dazzling jazz for the mouth.
Pagolac and Anh Hong are two fine places for bo 7 mon, the all-beef dinner served in seven courses (most “courses” are appetizer-sized so the meal isn’t gargantuan). But there’s a new take on this idea: the eight-course fish dinner at the recently opened Nhu-Y.
The first course, a ceviche-like marinated fish salad, is eaten by scooping up the herb-laden morsels with puffy rice crackers. Next come five tapas-like courses designed to be wrapped in rice paper or lettuce with herbs. The best were the fish spring roll, dipped in a turbocharged tamarind sauce, and the small fish patties. Then comes a substantial grilled fish filet accompanied by Vietnamese dips and garnishes. A bowl of fish-rice soup rounds out a meal that’s fun to eat at $12.99.
For sweets, Hien Khanh, in business since the mid-’80s, still has the best gooey Vietnamese-style desserts called che. The pudding-like sweets involve sticky rice, tapioca or mung beans stewed in light syrup topped with creamy coconut milk. At Banh Mi Che Cali Vietnam’s French heritage shows up in the hoagie-style sandwiches on warm crisp baguettes and the filled-on-the-spot cream puffs sold by the van-load to lined-up customers. A woman behind the counter quirts pastry cream into freshly baked puffs as you watch. Every now and then a baker brings a huge tray of fresh puffs from the ovens in back; the aroma drives everyone wild.
Several Little Saigon restaurants cater to a significant Buddhist population of vegetarians. Au Lac, with its hanging wisteria and shoji screen vistas captivates with its funkily charming dining room and light clean cuisine. The greenery-filled dining room seems like a magical garden. A takeout deli in front sells vegetarian stuffed steamed bao and vegetarian banh mi sandwiches filled with a herbaceous, vaguely meaty vegetable pa^te. But there’s much more on Au Lac’s long and interesting menu, such as rice-paper-wrapped jicama rolls (like a salad served as a wrap), the vegetable-stuffed wontons in steamy broth and the chile-spiced fried tofu with lemon grass.
Little Saigon has so much to choose from, the task of selecting a representative cross-section is daunting but you won’t go wrong with any of these local treasures.
Little Saigon Dining
1. Anh Hong, 10195 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 537-5230, www.anhhong.com
2. Au Lac, 16563 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 418-0658, www.aulac.com
3. Banh Mi Che Cali, 8948 Bolsa Ave. (ABC Market Mall), Westminster, (714) 897-3927
4. Brodard Restaurant, 9892 Westminster Ave., #R (behind 99 Cents Only store), Garden Grove, (714) 530-1744, www.brodard.net
5. Ha Noi, 9082-9086 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 901-8108, www.hanoirestaurantca.com
6. Hien Khanh, 9784 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 537-5105
7. Quan Hy, 9727 Bolsa Avenue, Westminster, 714-775-7179