Vietnamese Cuisine: A Taste of Little Saigon, California
Little Saigon in Orange County, California (approximately 45 miles south of Los Angeles) boasts the oldest and largest Vietnamese expats community in the United States. It’s a vibrant cultural and commercial center of the state. It’s also a major tourist attraction.
Many visitors are drawn to Little Saigon because of the abundant availability of Vietnamese food. There are hundreds of bakeries, cafes, and restaurants, most of them are located on Bolsa Avenue which runs through the heart of Little Saigon. Vietnamese Americans from out of state flock here to enjoy the delicious food that remind them of their home country. Other visitors include Vietnamese cuisine lovers and foodies who come searching for a terrific bowl of pho and other traditional authentic Vietnamese dishes – without having to jump on a plane heading to Vietnam!
Vietnamese food is distinctive, fresh, and simple. A typical Vietnamese dish usually has rice noodles served with grilled meat or fish. It often involves some sort of hot broth prepared by simmering beef or pork bones and spices. Most dishes come with a heaping serving of rau thom (literally “fragrant herbs”) like cilantro, mint, basil, rau tia to (perilla), along with mung bean sprouts and lime wedges. Nuoc cham or Vietnamese dipping sauce – made with fish sauce, lime juice, minced garlic, and chili peppers – is also a MUST accompaniment for many dishes.
Pho is the national dish of Vietnam. It has become quite popular not only in the U.S. but also around the world. For most people, when someone mentions Vietnamese food, pho is usually the first thing that comes to mind. A bowl of pho consists of flat rice noodles, slices of tender beef or chicken, onion, scallion, and a steamy hot broth infused with ginger, clove and cinnamon. Accompanied by fresh bean sprouts, basil, ngo gai (culantro), and a squeeze of lime juice, pho is unforgettable! There are many pho restaurants in Little Saigon, some have attracted an army of loyal fans from near and far. Try Pho Quang Trung, they’re known for their pho ga di bo or free-range chicken pho.
Tip: When ordering pho at any restaurant in Little Saigon, stick with either SMALL or MEDIUM size bowl. Unless you have the appetite of an elephant, a LARGE bowl is grotesquely huge!
Banh Mi Thit
Banh mi thit or Vietnamese sandwich is a perfect example of French influence in Vietnamese cuisine. A warm, crusty baguette stuffed with French butter and pâté, slices of cha lua or Vietnamese pork sausage (also barbecue pork or rotisserie chicken), along with pickled daikon and carrot, sliced cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeno peppers. A stable choice for breakfast or lunch, banh mi thit ranks second only to pho in popularity. Just like pho, there are many banh mi sandwich shops in Little Saigon. Try Banh Mi Che Cali or Lee’s Sandwiches, both have several locations.
Goi cuon (literally “salad roll”) is as fresh and healthy as it can be for Vietnamese food! Lettuce, mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and cooked shrimps (tofu or avocado may be substituted for a vegetarian option) are all wrapped in thin, translucent rice papers. You may order this dish at almost any Vietnamese restaurant in Little Saigon. Often served as a cold appetizer with peanut sauce.
Nem Nuong Cuon
Similar to goi cuon, except nem nuong rolls are usually served warm, with grilled pork or shrimp fillings. Marinated pork and shrimp are first ground into a thick paste, formed into balls, then grilled over an open fire with skewers made out of lemongrass or sugarcane sticks. Served with a sweet and sour nuoc cham made from tamarind pulp, hoisin sauce, peanut butter, minced garlic and chili peppers. The most famous nem nuong restaurant in Little Saigon is Brodard. Expect very long waiting line on weekends!
Goi Ngo Sen Tom Thit
A refreshing salad made with shredded carrot and cucumber, lotus stems, sliced onion, dried jellyfish, cooked shrimp and pork. Garnished with mint, perilla, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), roasted peanuts, and served with fried rice crackers. Pour the nuoc cham sauce over the salad, toss up and enjoy! Try this salad at Brodard, it’s a perfect dish to go with nem nuong rolls.
Delicate rice crepes made from spreading thin rice flour batter on a cheese cloth suspended over a pot of boiling water (the hot steam cooks the batter). Filled with a mixture of sautéed ground pork, wood ear mushroom and shallot, these crepes are then folded into neat rolls. Perhaps the most complicated Vietnamese dish to make! Martha Stewart once made this dish on her TV cooking show (of course she made it look very easy). Banh cuon is usually served with slices of cha lua or Vietnamese pork sausage, shredded cucumber, crispy fried shallots, bean sprouts, cilantro and nuoc cham sauce. Head to Tay Ho 4 on Bolsa Ave for this fantastic dish.
Banh xeo is named for the loud sizzling sound it makes when pouring rice flour batter onto a hot skillet. It’s like a big omelet stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp, pork, and onion. Turmeric powder in the batter gives banh xeo an exquisite golden glow! Served with lots of fresh herbs, pickled carrot and daikon. To eat: use a lettuce leaf to roll up a piece of banh xeo and some fresh herbs, then dip into nuoc cham and take a bite! Brodard Chateau is a sophisticated restaurant in Little Saigon that serves gorgeous plates of banh xeo.
Savory steamed rice cakes topped with shredded dried shrimp, mung bean paste, and crispy fried shallots. Often served in a set of 8 or 10 small round cups. To eat: use chopsticks or spoon to loosen a banh beo cake from its cup, dip in nuoc cham then pop it in your mouth! Quan Hy and Quan Vy Da are the places to go for these dainty, tasty little cakes.
Banh Bot Loc
Chewy, translucent dumplings made from tapioca flour and corn starch, with shrimp and pork fillings. Green scallion sautéed in hot oil (called hanh mo) is spread over the dumplings before serving. The hanh mo adds a distinct flavor to this dish, it also keeps the dumplings from sticking together. A sweet and spicy nuoc cham accompanies banh bot loc. Again, Quan Hy and Quan Vy Da are the top restaurants for this dish. People usually enjoy it together with banh beo.
Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong
This traditional street food is a favorite among the late-night hipster crowds in Little Saigon! Thanh My – a nice restaurant on Bolsa Ave which is open until 2AM – dishes up the best bowl! Cha gio is Vietnamese fried eggrolls. Thit nuong is grilled pork (also beef or chicken). A bowl of bun cha gio thit nuong consists of several layers: shredded lettuce, mint, cilantro, and bean sprouts on the bottom; rice noodles in middle; eggrolls and grilled meat go on top. Garnished with roasted peanuts, pickled daikon and carrot. Pour nuoc cham over the whole thing, mix well and bon appétit! Another version of this dish is called bun cha Ha Noi where the grilled meat comes in a separate bowl filled with fish sauce and rice vinegar. President Obama once tried this dish with CNN’s Anthony Bourdain at a restaurant in Vietnam. He liked it.
About This Article
The author recently did a whirlwind “eating tour” of Little Saigon! His favorite dish is pho. He sampled several popular pho restaurants, trying to rate which one has the best pho in Little Saigon. He still couldn’t come up with the verdict!
All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone 6.
© 2016 Viet Doan