Pretty much every Vietnamese restaurant and pho joint serves com tam (broken rice) dishes, a peasant staple made with the cheapo broken grains of rice not fit for export. But few actually specialize in it, as Com Tam Thuan Kieu does.
The menu has a dizzying array of com tam dishes–64 of them. The house specialties, #7 and #8, offer seven toppings on a generous mound of rice. They’re seriously enough for two. The #7 includes, as elmomonster describes it:
-Bi (shredded pork)–Wispy strands of translucent pork skin and julienned meat tossed with toasted rice powder.
-Cha (baked egg)–A slice of something similar to quiche, with wood ear mushrooms, glass noodles, and pork cooked together with beaten egg.
-Nem (charbroiled meat)–A mixture of pureed pork meat, aggressively seasoned with pepper, formed into racquetball-sized spheres, and cooked to a springy, bouncy firmness.
-Lap Xuong (sausage)–Sweet Chinese sausage, splayed on the diagonal into bite-sized sections, pan-fried to an oily sheen.
-Tom Nuong (charbroiled shrimp)–Grilled shrimp skewered on a stick, basted with a sweet barbecue glaze.
-Tau Hu Ky (bean curd skin w/ shrimp)–A golden brick of shrimp minced to a paste, wrapped with a thin sheet of bean curd skin, and deep fried to a crisp.
-Suon (charbroiled pork chop)–A grilled, marinated pork chop, cut to the shape of a baseball mitt.
Less ambitious diners might want to get #22 instead, with the classic trio of baked egg, shredded pork and thit, grilled pork that’s actually preferable to the suon (grilled pork chop). The pieces are as tender as they are flavorful.
The rice bits themselves are steamed, and have a texture kind of like couscous. They absorb the juices from the toppings that seep into them.
Nuoc cham, a pungent sauce with vinegary, sweet, and fishy overtones, is meant to be drizzled over everything you eat–especially com tam, says elmomonster, adding that “com tam without it is pancakes without syrup; cereal without milk; sushi without wasabi…you get the picture.”
You can also amp up the flavor with some chile garlic paste, and by eating some of the whole bird chiles on the table. They’re super-hot–the key is to take a bite while your mouth is full of rice and toppings. The carrot-daikon pickles, also on the table, will neutralize the spiciness, and the scallion-and-fried-shallot-speckled broth that comes with the com tam will wash away the rest. Cleanse your palate with a bite of cucumber.
House special com tam is about $8, while the three-ingredient #22 is $5.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu [Little Saigon]
14282 Brookhurst St., #2, Garden Grove
Com Tam Thuan Kieu [San Gabriel Valley]
120 E. Valley Blvd. # I, Del Mar, San Gabriel