02 March, 2010

Southern California with a Vietnamese twist.

This is my great-grandfather on my mother's side, in 1941. He was the owner of a large ceramics factory in Vietnam.
Between then and now, a whole, messy chain of events slid into place. The Communists took over Vietnam, appropriating all private industry, including of course, the prosperous family business. Then came the grim and precarious years in concentration camps for various uncles, the forced labor for many aunts and the eventual flight to America, with not much more than the clothes on their backs. The immigrant tale redux.

Multiply my family's story exponentially, give or take a few details, add the bare-knuckle efforts of the first generation and the open arms of the second, and you get Little Saigon, in Westminster, California. Of the approximately 160,000 overseas Vietnamese living in Orange County, some 60,000 are clustered in the Westminster/Garden Grove area, a cultural epicenter for the Vietnamese diaspora, according to census records, although Vietnamese Americans put the number far higher. If you're interested in how and why Little Saigon came to be, you can find an excellent historical explanation at Wandering Chopsticks.

A culture is often accessed--and assessed--by the kitchen door. If you find yourself in Los Angeles or Orange County, there are very many such "kitchen doors" to try; the Vietnamese cuisine available today in Little Saigon often rivals the best to be found in Vietnam.

Here are a few places where you won't go wrong, where the food is mouth-wateringly authentic, the bill is easy on the wallet (helpful in these recessionary times) and the atmosphere is pleasant.
For a steaming bowl of star anise-scented Phở, go to Pho Thang Long Restaurant, located within a strip mall at 9550 Bolsa Ave., in Westminster (tel: 714 839-4955). If you aren't familiar with what is practically the dish of Vietnam--and which as Andrea Nguyen puts it, rhymes with "duh"--then check out her comprehensive description of this (inexpensive) body-and-soul food.
As you can see, the restaurant has a more upscale atmosphere than the typical "ethnic" restaurant (even though a huge bowl still goes for $5-8), and I kind of fell in love with the orange walls. Please don't blame me if you find yourself with long-term cravings for this soup. It happens to nearly everyone, which explains its immense popularity among Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike.
If you're looking for a more crunchy addiction, opt for the nem nướng cuốn at the rather hidden but always bustling, well-loved Brodards on Westminster Avenue in Garden Grove. It's the main reason diners come to the large restaurant, judging by their tables.

This is what it looks like:

This is what it tastes like: fresh (with its translucent rice paper casing and green herbs), crunchy (thanks to the rolled and fried green onion within) and oh so savory (that due to an ultra-delish pork pattie utterly unlike Western style sausage and the secret sauce that you dip it in).
Brodards also serves a eye-wideningly good bánh hỏi chạo tôm (Angel vermicelli "cake", served under shrimp patties grilled on sugar cane sticks then sliced and served with peanuts, browned shallots and fresh scallions). Tuck it into the accompanying lettuce, add cilantro , basil and other herbs...and you've your own bit of heaven. Crunch, sweetness, saltiness, an explosion of fresh herbs--as savory and delightful as the pork pattie rolls, but then on a seafood riff.
There are other restaurants I'd also recommend, such as the well-established Van restaurant (Nha Hang Van, 14122 Brookhurst St, Garden Grove, tel: 714 530-6858). Aficionados come not for the atmosphere (there isn't really any, per se) but rather for its top-notch bánh xèo (a crispy stuffed crepe) and bánh khọt (melt in your mouth fried "open-face" cakes with shrimp in the middle). It is a favorite of my aunts and uncles who live in Little Saigon, but you can also read a review and see nicer photos than I took (I guess I was too busy scarfing down food that time!) by the always-engaging Hong and Kim at Ravenous Couple.

In case you're wondering, I did do more than eat my way through Southern California. Honest. I'll write about it soon, but I have to stop for lunch; writing this has made me hungry.


  1. Tammy, it's awesome for you to post those precious old photos. The history of our generations should be retold again and again. So glad you had a great time here in southern California.

  2. I have a picture of my grandfather like that. He lacquered his teeth black. That's pretty old school.

  3. Thanks RC! I really did have a wonderful time with my family, and was able to go to the temple to pay my respects to my grandmother and grandfather.

    Wow WC, that is old school. I've seen the betel-stained teeth of some of the older generation, but lacquer? Hmm, wonder if that protected the teeth as well...

  4. O how I love vietnamese food!!!! My favorite place has zero atmosphere but amazing food for cheap!

  5. I am so glad you had such a wonderful time reconnecting with your "roots". I live very close to Gardena and will have to check out Westminster. Do you pronounce pho (as in fo or po)? There is a good Pho restaurant not far from Marukai in Gardena.
    I don't envy your jet lag. That is my pet peeve when I go to France. It takes me 9 days to get rid of it.

  6. My grandfather had all of his teeth until the day he died at 82 years old. No cavities. He could also eat sugarcane by stripping the hard outer layer with his teeth. So I think the lacquer might have started out as a practical thing, but then evolved into a beauty thing?

    I meant to ask, was the bowl from your grandparents or just for illustration? It's really beautiful.

  7. Hi Rose,
    Yeah, most "ethnic" places aren't generally known for their ambiance--you go for the chow. But when it's really good, it really doesn't matter, right? At least you know you're paying for what went into your dish.

    Hi Nadege,
    It was really special. Loads of dragon dances, with the drumbeat speeding up your pulse and the children watching with shining eyes and half-open mouths. Okay, I was as excited as the kids were!

  8. Hi WC,

    Your comment got me wondering about how prevalent teeth lacquering actually was/is in Vietnam...I came across this piece which you might find interesting:

    The bowl in the photo is indeed from the family factory, still standing (under new ownership, natch) in Bat Tràng, a village outside Hanoi well-known for the quality of its porcelain. You can see the BT painted in calligraphy in the well of the bowl, indicating its place of origin.

    The new stuff from the village is pretty pedestrian. This bowl, so big I can't put my arms around it and still touch my fingers, was made over fifty years ago. I took the photo just when it had been given to me after being rummaged out of an forgotten corner in my great uncle's backyard in BT.

    Today, the people in the North live in poorer circumstances than those of the South, and BT was gut-wrenchingly poor, though by local standards my great-uncle was doing alright. If you want to see poverty in VN, as in most countries, you go to the rural areas. So sad when you think how these places used to thrive.

  9. Nadege,
    Sorry, I was still thinking about dragons and forgot to answer your question: pho, as in "duh".

  10. Tammy, Wikipedia has the actual sound for Pho pronounced like a long uh. Did you check David Lebovitz's blog today? It is about making bergamot marmalade

  11. Hi Nadege,
    "F"-uh,as in "Duh...that is SO fifteen minutes ago."

    Wish I still had some bergamots, I'd be all over that recipe!

  12. Welcome, tasteofbeirut--but please don't remind me of how delicious pho is, now that I'm back in la France profonde (I've just called my butcher to special order some meat for some other Vietnamese dishes!)


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