Ask your typical fairly worldly Southern Californian to describe Vietnamese food, and your chances are high that they'll talk about pho (beef noodle soup) and bun (rice vermicelli salads). If you're on Chowhound you might hear about banh mi (sandwiches), bun bo Hue (Hue-style beef soup) or bo bay mon (beef seven ways).
Rarely do you hear about com tam, which translates to "broken rice", but it's a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, has its roots in the cuisine of poverty, is on pretty much every Viet menu in the area, and I've yet to see a non-Asian eat it.
Also, as all good L.A. Chowhounds know, one ignores the mini-mall, that oft-mocked symbol of LA, at one's peril. Some of the best food in the city is located in mini-malls. As I headed for my night's destination, I passed a place called Lo Cha Lua. "Hm," I thought, "I'll eat half of my com tam and then go try the cha lua, and have the leftovers for lunch."
Com Tam Thuan Kieu, is one of those gems in a boring mini-mall in a forgotten corner of a dirty section of Little Saigon. The decor -- well, there isn't much of it. Four tables on each side and communal bench-type seating running up the centre. Walk in and sit down, it doesn't matter where. If it's busy you can ask to share a table with someone already sitting.
The menu looks like absolutely every other Vietnamese coffee-shop type menu, except that the appetisers are listed first instead of relegated to the back near the drinks, and there's no pho. The place of honour usually reserved for the various types of beef noodle soup is taken up by two and a half pages of variations on broken rice plates.
It's obvious that most people order one of the two "seven types" plates, which are the most expensive things in the section at $8.50. I, however, was not about to order that much food since the prospect of steamed ham with rice wrappers to follow was commanding me to eat relatively lightly.
I ordered a combo (#35, $5.95) of a mere four items, then: bi (shredded pork), cha (a kind of quiche with pork, glass noodles, vegetables and spices bound up in eggs), tau hu ky (tofu stuffed with shrimp paste and fried) and lap xuong (sweet Chinese sausage). I also ordered da chanh, which is generously translated as "lemon drink" but is in fact limeade with waythehellandgone too much sugar in it. ("Gack!" I thought. "I can't drink this!")
In about ten seconds a bowl of soup was set in front of me. I've eaten com tam before and I know that it is not an appetiser -- it's set out there first because it's bloody hot as hell and would scorch your innards if you drank it). Ten seconds later a bowl of nuoc cham (sweetened garlic fish sauce) with lily bulbs and carrots floating in it came out. And maybe a minute later my food came.
It was enormous. It was the Tai Shan of com tam. I can't imagine what the full-on seven-item one would look like. There was a chunk of tau hu ky the size of a deck of tarot cards, a wedge of cha not much smaller, a veritable mountain of bi, and two entire lap xuong sausages cut into wedges and glistening with sugar and grease, all atop a huge pile of broken rice, with what looked like fully half an English cucumber and a big pile of pickled radish and carrot.
"Damn," I thought, "this is a lot of food."
The way to eat com tam is this: pour the nuoc cham over the plate, except for the vegetables. Then grab one of the Thai bird chilies that's in a bowl near the forks and spoons (no chopsticks for com tam). Eat some of the garnish with some of the rice, then take a bite -- a VERY VERY SMALL bite -- of the chili. It is mind-numbingly hot. Swallow. Have a bit of the soup -- even though it's still steaming, it will cool off your mouth. Repeat, alternating with bits of cucumber, which cut through the entire flavor party like a dip in a cold pool. You can skip the chili pepper if you absolutely must, but if you don't eat it, things will get too sweet very quickly. If you're not a heat lover, you must learn to eat chilis the right way: nibble off a tiny tiny bit (the kind of bite you took as a kid when your mother told you you weren't leaving the table until you tried whatever it was), and swallow. Do not chew! Try the peppers -- they lend a necessary dimension to the dinner.
The food was incredible. The rice is an unusual texture for those who are familiar with Asian food. It's not very sticky at all, because the breaking is uneven, thus it's a bit like having short-grain and long-grain rice together.
The lap xuong was just perfect, with the right amount of snap. The bi was its usual self -- a bit dry and powdery, which is an odd description of meat but it fits perfectly. The tau hu ky was tender and not at all greasy, and the cha -- wow, I wanted an entire pan of cha to take home and eat for breakfast. The idea of cha lua went right out the window -- I'll try it another time -- and I just slurped and nibbled and munched my way through the whole plate. I'm so ashamed of myself.
Remember that toothachingly sweet limeade I ordered? It went PERFECTLY with the com tam and the peppers. I went through three peppers, which made the waiters look at me in quite a different light and they refilled my limeade for free.
Service was exactly what it always is in places such as this... no-nonsense. Tell them what you want, then when you're done walk to the counter and pay. Leave a tip on the way out. Don't overtip. My com tam was $5.95, the limeade was $1.85, plus tax and tip was a total of $9.50. Cash only, like so many places in Little Saigon.
Mrs Ubergeek is at her yoga class (yes, even eight-plus months pregnant, she still does regular yoga) in Burbank, so she missed out -- but we will definitely be back. It was delicious.
And now I can concentrate on the cha lua place a block north with a clean heart.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu
14282 Brookhurst St. #2
Garden Grove, CA 92643