So I had a bit of an epiphany while I was on the plane from NY to CA for thanksgiving...I decided that I needed to explore Little Saigon area more since its pretty close to my parent's house and the last few meals I had were very good (Vien Dong, Newport Seafood etc). Plus, I have this amazing concentrated area serving some of the best Viet food in the US and I wasn't taking advantage of it...thats sort of a crime.
I've also been trying to learn more about viet food b/c I figured viet food has to be great b/c pretty much every other asian food has been sort of a revelation when I first tried them. I remember trying Korean food for the first time and thinking how good it was (growing up in a chinese family, i never really ate it), same with thai, same with malay, same with indian (i also grew up eating japanese, so that was never a revelation even though its one of my favorite foods).
So, I did a bit of research and asked for some help on the chowhound boards (thanks for the recs everyone!) and I decided to hit a few places. Here we go:
Pho Tau Bay (3610 W. 1st St.) - I found some ramblings on this place, but not too much concrete, but I read they were a banh cuon specialist, so I decided to try it anyways. Banh cuon is a vietnamese steamed rice crepe w/ filling. I've never had a good version of banh cuon before...I sort of viewed it has an inferior version of cheung fan (chinese rice crepe) b/c the version i had before were pretty subpar. Well that all changed with Pho Tau Bay.
It's a small restaurant a little off the beaten path on the edge of little saigon where it starts turning into a much more mexican neighborhood. Like most places, not much to speak of decor wise, with sort of off orange colored walls and a bunch of tables. I walked in at an off hour (3pm on a friday), so it was pretty dead, just 2 other customers in the place and most of the staff, was cleaning up and re-filling sauce bottles and condiments on the table. They looked a little shocked when I started ordering in english b/c I dont think they get many non-viet people in there; nonetheless they were very nice. They only have 2 things (with a bunch of variations) on their menu: pho and banh cuon. However, I think banh cuon is the specialty here b/c 70% of the people ordered that with the other 30% ordering the pho and banh cuon.
I ordered a large order of the banh cuon dac biet. It comes out on a large plate and is several very thin rice crepes rolled up around little pieces of small bits of pork sausage and mushrooms topped with lots of crispy fried onions, crispy fried garlic and pork floss; on the side are two different types of a sort of pork bologne. They also give you a mixture of boiled beat spouts, cucumbers and basil and they give you a side of the typical nuoc mam (a sweet viet fish sauce)
First bite....WOW....it was a revelation! The rice crepe was so delicate; literally this was one of the best rice crepes I've ever had (including in Asia), paper thin, steamed fresh to order (was exact same quality both times I went). The filling was really delicious as well, great pork sausage flavor (not heavy at all) and wonderful mushrooms with tons of flavor. The topping was great as well, the crispy onions tasted just like the ones I used to eat when I lived in singapore and the garlic and pork floss were great as well. I hit it with a little nuom mam, chili oil (they've got a great one with a good amt of shrimp paste in it) and some of the beat sprout mix....so good!!!
It was so good, that i came back with my mom 2 days later on a sunday (this time it was packed with a 20 min wait, entirely viet, didnt hear a word of english except for me). The staff remembered me and they were surprised to see me again. This time I chatted with the short gentleman who doubles as sort of host / busboy / everything for a while. He asked me how I found out of about their restaurant and told me that they really cater towards the local viet community and rarely have non-locals come in, he explained to me how they make everything from scratch (literally), they mince the onions and then fry them for 45 mins, they get the pork fresh every morning mash it and then steam it for 4 hours to make the bologne type thing, they make the rice dough themselves and then steam it fresh to order etc. He really took pride in the food and was very excited about how excited I was about their food. I love places that really take pride in their food. This place is a keeper and I plan on being a regular when I'm in town
Trieu Chau (4401 W. 1st St.) - this is a long standing institution (i've heard about it for years). So, I'm not going to go into as much description. Its a total dump that is absolutely packed (my favorite chinese places are always like this). It's billed chao zhou food, which is a region in guang zhou province in china, but I believe these chinese people may have lived in vietnam. Chao zhou people are all over southeast asia (vietnam,singapore, thailand etc). Anyhow, I walked up and there was a big wait, but luckily since i was by myself I got seated in about 2 mins. Much like Newport Seafood next door, these guys speak like every language ever haha. I started speaking to them in mandarin, but after I sat down I realized that they could speak english perfectly, so just started speaking to them in english. I heard them speak viet, mandarin, cantonese, spanish, thai and some other languages which I wasn't really sure what they were. The service is very brisk, but efficient. I ordered the house special noodle soup (hu tieu nam vang) with rice noodles. Out came a steaming bowl of rice noodles in a beautiful fragrant broth with roasted duck, boiled chicken, pork slices, liver, fish balls and 3 or 4 shrimps. All the meat ingredients were really very good, not dry at all and very fresh tasting. The broth...WOW...so fragrant, not too salty, not too much MSG, slightly sweet, just perfect...one of the better noodle soups I've had in a very long time, in fact the last time I had a noodle soup this good was def in asia. The noodles were perfect as well. Now, I know what so many people come here and this is also def on my list of being a return customer.
Pho 79 (9941 Hazard) - another long standing institution, so again not going to go into huge description. More lines, no decor, brisk service (albeit nice). Came here with my mom. Now I'll caveat this that with the fact that it is very good, but I think my expectations were too high given what I heard about this place. We both ordered the pho tai (pho with raw beef brisket). The broth was very flavorful, but extremely heavy...in fact the most heavy pho broth I've ever had, you could see the little beads of fat / oil in the soup, I was sort of surprised at this (I could be wrong since im no viet expert, but I dont believe its supposed to be that heavy / oily). It also had a very strong star anise flavor, almost too strong where I realized halfway through that it was almost overpowering. The noodles were perfect and the beef and condiments were very good. But, I think I'm going to search around a little bit more for my favorite bowl of pho; i think my expectations were for a much lighter broth as when Ive had great beef broth (bones that have been boiled for a very long time under a low heat) its been a much lighter broth that doesn't need this amt of oiliness.
Brodard (9892 Westminster) - a 3rd long standing institution. This place has a little bit of decor with high ceilings and is well light, albeit a bit dirty. It's also got the weirdest restaurant location, its in the very back of the "Mall of Fortune". I came here with a bunch of people (mom, grandmother, sister, her bf), so I was able to order a lot of stuff:
- nem nuong cuon (pork spring rolls): this is the house specialty and I understand why. These are spring rolls that are basically steamed rice paper filled with a pork paste type of thing, its got these crispy things in the middle, lettuce, cucumber, carrots, daikon and mint. They've got this sort of sweet thicker sauce that goes very well with it. Overall, these were a winner.
- chao tom cuon (shrimp spring rolls): similar to the nem nuong cuon except with a shrimp paste...these were all very good
- bahn xeo (pan fried rice crepe): this was decent, but not great. I've had these in the paste. The dough has coconut milk in it, so you can definitely taste the coconut. It's filled with shrimp, sliced pork, onion, mung beans. It's served with another semi sweet sauce. We thought it was good, but not a standout
- com tam bi, cha, thit nuong (broken rice w/ bbq pork, shredded pork and eggloaf): I love broken rice, so I generally like this dish. I thought the bbq pork was pretty good, the shredded pork was a bit bland as was the eggloaf, but I still like broken rice, so I liked it
- goi bo (spicy beef salad): this was very good, it looked like an american salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onions. I believe the salad has some sort of vinaigrette. The beef has a sort of savory spiced gravy on it. It goes really well with the salad and this was another winner.
- goi vit quay (roasted duck salad): this was roast duck (tastes similar to a roast duck you could get in any cantonese restaurant) over bed of shredded cabbage that has some sort of vinagrette on it, also had some peanuts and shallots. This was pretty good.
- durian shake: I'm not sure why I ordered this as I was already really full, but it turned out to be really good...very tasty clean durian flavor (if you like durian), not overly sweet...id def order again
Overall, I thought it was all very good, I wasn't blown away by anything, but I'd def come again.
All in, it was a great little adventure and I realize that I've got a ton of ground to cover the next few times im in town to get a good handle on little saigon...there are SO many restaurants and I'm very curious to go find more great ones.