Little Saigon is a place incredibly rich in food that's simply not available in many other places. You're not going to find bo bay mon (7 courses of beef) in, say, Omaha. You won't have enough competition to be able to buy a sandwich for $1.75 in Boise. The flavours that come out of Little Saigon are some of my favourites -- Vietnamese is a beguiling cuisine.
What Little Saigon is short on is atmosphere. Your typical eatery on Brookhurst is a place where you sit down, are handed a functional menu, and expected to know what you want in five seconds while the waiter taps his pencil. Tables are usually Formica-topped, with the same carousel of sauces shoved over next to the napkin dispenser and the forest of cheap plastic chopsticks with ugly dragon prints on them. Food is sometimes deposited willy-nilly on the table for you to figure out and distribute (we call this "drive-by pho"), and when you're done, you're expected to go to the counter and pay.
There aren't very many "upscale" Viet restaurants in Little Saigon. I say "upscale" with inverted commas (which will probably get changed into double apostrophes) because there are no temples of Vietnamese gastronomy. There's Quan Hy, there's Brodard Chateau, and there's S Vietnamese Cuisine. None of these places are dress-up nice; they're just places with better service, some attempt at decor, and higher prices.
Xanh fits well into the upper echelon of these "upscale" places. It's not pretentious (hard to be stuck up when you're in the back corner of a strip mall featuring an Albertsons), but it is much, much nicer than your typical Brookhurst restaurant.
I met kingkong5 and two of my friends from UCLA who live in South OC to check it out.
While we gathered, I ordered a banana blossom salad (goi hoa chuoi, $7.95) for us to share. Banana blossoms are very astringent, so I was looking forward to seeing how the salad came out. What came out was a tangle of shredded magenta blossom, herbs, peanuts, and some poached shrimp cut in half. We had ordered it with no pork, since we're all Catholic and today is Friday. It was one of those dishes that makes me glad I learned long ago to eat with chopsticks -- trying to eat that with a fork would have been very challenging. The salad was very refreshing -- not at all astringent, though one of our dining companions added some nuoc cham to it to cut the sourness of the lime juice. When chef Haley Nguyen came over after dinner to see how we liked the food, I asked about the lack of astringency. She told us that she soaks the blossom shreds in lime water for quite a long time.
Dinner, which was served family-style, was a riot of different flavours. I don't remember who ordered what, but we ended up with kabocha squash and shrimp soup (canh bi ro tom, $8.75), seared white fish with green mango (ca chien xoai xanh, $13.95), fish in caramel sauce (ca kho to, $12.95), and lemongrass tofu (dau hu xa, $5.95).
The soup was thicker than most "canh" (broth-type soups) and was very, very earthy. I wish the kabocha had been just a little firmer, but that's me -- and the fact that it wasn't lent body to the soup, so I can't have it both ways, I suppose.
The seared white fish I loved. I love seared fish, especially when it's seared properly. You get that kind of "crust" on the side that's been seared and it's soft and flaky in the centre -- the fish was cooked just like a perfectly-seared scallop. It was set atop green mango (which was more like half-ripe mango in texture) and topped with fried onion strings. I didn't care about the onion strings, though they added a nice texture, but the mango and fish together was a real winner.
I'm a sucker for kho. It's part of those sweet-salty combinations that sound to American ears like they should be wrong... turkey in chocolate sauce (that's mole de guajolote to Chowhounds), chocolate with almonds and salt, and fish stewed in caramel sauce. You tell an American "caramel sauce" and he or she thinks ice cream topping... but this is a thinner sauce, meant to give beef (bo kho) or fish (ca kho) a rich flavour. The sauce was delicious -- chef Nguyen certainly is able to contain some of the more objectionable qualities (the caramel is very often cooked until it's bitter, but not at all in this case), but I think that I'd prefer it with a stronger-flavoured meat. The fish was well-cooked but all I tasted was the sauce.
The tofu was fried in long strips and tossed with soy (and, I assume, fish) sauce and lemongrass. It was very well-executed but was not as exciting as the other dishes. I'd order it again but I wouldn't go here for it. It was somewhat of the poor stepchild of our dinner order -- we didn't know it would be family-style when we started, so two of us tried to order the ca kho to. When we learned of the service style, I dropped the fish and went to the tofu.
After dinner, we ordered dessert. One coconut creme brulee ($5.95), one sponge cake with berries ($4.95) and one trio dessert -- chocolate souffle, ginger ice cream and lemongrass hot tea ($6.95). The sponge cake was quite good and moist, but I don't know if I'd order it again. The souffle was much better, though the hot tea felt a little like an afterthought -- the ginger ice cream, though, was incredible. The winner in the desserts was the creme brulee -- definitely tasted of coconut and was creamy and sweet without being cloying or, God forbid, gritty.
Xanh does not have a license, so liquor is strictly BYOB. We drank hot lemongrass tea (included), hibiscus tea (like a less-sweetened jamaica, $2.95) and soy milk with toasted rice ($2.95). They're trying to get one, but this always takes time.
Service was friendly, and I mean friendly by any standard, not friendly by Little Saigon standards. ("Friendly" service in Little Saigon usually means they're not throwing the food at you as they run past.) It's a smallish place, though with probably 40 seats. When we arrived a little before 7, the place was nearly empty, but by the time we left at 8:30, it was much more active.
This is a place I feel should be encouraged... a nice Vietnamese family-style restaurant, with good decor and good service, for what are still very reasonable prices (though, again, by Little Saigon standards, this is heinously expensive). You can bring a date to Xanh, where you really couldn't bring a first date to, say, Com Tam Thuan Kieu or Pho Thanh Lich. It's a family-friendly place (they have high chairs, it's not some museum-like hush), and the food is genuinely good -- and it fits a niche, because there aren't so many places for family-style dining in Little Saigon.
I intend to go back... and not on a Friday next time, because there were beef and chicken dishes I was aching to try. When I'm aching to try something, it's a good restaurant.
16161 Brookhurst Street (corner of Edinger)
Fountain Valley, CA 92708