I'd read good things about Van Tranh in the OC Weekly, and had been there a couple of times and liked it. Not in the same league as Brodard, but my husband is a vegan, which rather limits our dining-out options. (I have to sneak in my Double-Doubles and other good stuff at lunch, when he's not around...unfaithful me.)
So when it was time for me to choose a place for our annual "exotic dinner" with another couple, we decided to meet at Van Tranh. We got there before our friends did, and our waitress, whose English was extremely limited, came over and tried to take our order several times while we waited for them to arrive. I don't think she understood our explanation that we were waiting for the rest of our party.
Like the menus at many places that cater to a non-English-speaking clientele, the English on Van Tranh's menu is, to put it gently, cryptic. Many items aren't translated at all, and most of the translations are incomplete or so vague it's impossible to tell if the item being referred to is a soup, stew, dry noodle dish, or something else.
So when our friends (quite adventurous diners) finally arrived and looked at the menus, they froze like deer in the headlights. No matter. Van Tranh offers a set of "family meals" serving 4-10 people, and all dirt-cheap--the "family meal" for 4 was $30 and included 5 dishes, including dessert. So we ordered that.
Or so we thought. Our first course, spring rolls, came out almost immediately. There were 12 of them, and they were quite large and plump. They were lined with fresh mint and basil, and the bulk of the filling was something crunchy and savory--deep fried?--that I couldn't identify. The rice paper wrapping on the rolls on top of the pile was a bit dry and leathery, which suggested that they had been lying about uncovered for a while, but otherwise they were tasty.
Then we waited for the rest of our food. And waited. And waited. I finally flagged down our server and asked her, and she pointed at the plate of spring rolls and said "four orders". Apparently she had though that we had ordered just that, and not the whole dinner that they were included in!
After that, it didn't take long for the rest of our meal to arrive. First came little folded, deep-fried triangular bundles of bean-curd sheet filled with vegetarian faux shrimp. They even tasted a little like shrimp, and were carefully colored with little red stripes to look the part. These little treats came with a sweet, tangy dipping sauce. Also a nice dish.
Then came tofu in a brown sauce with basil leaves, with steamed rice on the side. The tofu had a beautiful, creamy texture and tasted really fresh, but the sauce wasn't anything special.
Next came a "combination" hotpot: our server brought out a big metal hotpot filled with broth, mushrooms, taro slices, and about half a dozen different tofu treatments, and lit a strange little container of crystallized Sterno underneath it. She also brought out a plate of raw bok chow and Napa cabbage, and another plate of thin rice noodles. We dumped these in once the broth started to boil and it took only moments for the vegetables to cook. It was pleasant and comforting, but the broth was a bit bland--we collectively decided to throw a few spoonfuls of chile sauce into the pot.
Dessert was a two-layered gelatin mold topped with canned lichis: The bottom layer was obviously coconut, the top layer was clear, bright green, and had no discernable independent flavor. We sat around trying to figure out what it was until we realized that the staff was sweeping the floor and probably waiting for us to leave.
All through the meal I felt somewhat bad about having botched up our order and being totally unable to communicate with our server. But my husband and friends pointed out that throughout the evening, even Vietnamese-speaking diners at other tables had to keep calling her over to remove things they hadn't ordered or to bring out missing things that they had. So it wasn't just us, or the language barrier.
Anyhow, it was a fun experience and a good meal for the price, despite the iffy service.
If you're a cheap, jaded vegan living in or passing through Orange County (or just hanging out with one), it's definitely worth checking out.
Van Hanh Vegetarian Restaurant
9455 Bolsa Avenue, Suite D
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