(Damn it, I hate getting scooped by Gustavo. It happened a few weeks ago with Wadiya, and so I didn't write, and today it happened again with Nhu Lan. But Nhu Lan I'm going to write about anyway.)
I have this theory that restaurants within a certain cultural zone have to be really excellent in order to survive -- so a Korean place on Garden Grove and Magnolia needs to be great because there's so much competition and so many discerning customers, and the same for a taqueria in Santa Ana. That' s not to say it's all good, but your chances of stumbling upon a good place goes up.
Outside that little cluster of businesses, though, you'll usually find a group of also-rans. They don't have the competition, so the You can see this happening with Pho Nam Dinh, which is expensive and not so good.
Next door, though, at Nhu Lan Bakery, my theory falls down. This place is good. It is more than good, and despite not being right in the hustle and bustle of Little Saigon (i.e., not on Bolsa, Brookhurst or Westminster), it is as cheap as places already there.
The first thing you're going to notice: it is CLEAN. Most Viet places, contrary to the racist comments left by commenters on the OC Register's list of OC HCA restaurant closures, are clean, but they tend to be slightly careworn, or just plain run-down. "Hole in the wall" is a very apt description of a place like, say, Banh Mi Cho Cu, and happily it doesn't have much to do with the quality of the food that comes out. But Nhu Lan Bakery is bright, freshly-painted, and spotless.
The service, by American standards, is a bit frigid. You know you're in Little Saigon when you're invited to place your order by a cocked eyebrow or an impatient stare. At Nhu Lan, you're likely to be acknowledged in words, which is a nice change. (By Little Saigon banh mi shop standards this is wow-I-can't-believe-it friendly.) It helps to know the Vietnamese names of the dishes you want, but the proprietress speaks perfectly fine English and can help you if you need be.
On to the food. The dac biet sandwich (house special) is great. The pate is garlicky, the charcuterie is tender and not rubbery. (Are you listening, Lee's?? No, of course you aren't.) The bread has that light snap that's characteristic of Little Saigon baguettes, which tend to be made with part rice flour, the dressing is not overwhelming, the pickles are appropriately tangy, and -- most importantly -- the cilantro is mostly leaves and not mostly stalky nastiness.
The grilled pork is also quite good, but I agree with Gustavo that the thing to get is the lemongrass beef. It's been quite tender each time I've had it, and just juicy enough that it mixes well with the dressing to make it really savoury (but not SO juicy that it makes the bread mushy).
The best one might be the sunny-side up egg. It's totally crack. I like the one at Zon Baguettes better, but this one is cheaper and closer. Mmmmm, breakfast sandwich.
One I didn't like was the xiu mai. I thought the meatballs needed a little zip, and they seemed a little dry. I only had this one once.
The stew I had -- bo kho, or beef stew -- was very good. I don't like curry chicken, so I can't offer any opinion.
I do, however, think their coffee is very good, certainly much better than Lee's across the street. I might give the edge on the coffee (for banh mi shops, anyway) to Banh Mi Che Cali, but it's certainly no slouch. My only complaint is that on a couple of occasions I have had to ask for it to be filled. (You don't want it filled ALL the way or you'll have a caffeineslide when the ice melts, but this was blatant.) After the first complaint, though, the lady remembered and has had the short coffee corrected before handing it to me.
The pa te so ("pate chaud", little pork or chicken filled puff pastries) are quite good, and not as greasy as some I've had (hi there, Van's Bakery!). It's important to get them in the morning -- they don't improve under the heat lamp.
The sweet rice is quite good -- not terribly remarkable, but quite good, and the goi cuon (un-fried, fresh rice-paper rolls with pork and shrimp) are quite good, especially the earlier in the day you get them.
Prices are decent. You won't pay more than $3 for a banh mi, which is still quite a bargain; coffee is $2. Plates of food range but none are more than $6 or $7. This is definitely a bargain, though you will have to take your food out elsewhere.
I go here more often than Cho Cu, now, mostly because it's just a few blocks from my office and they have that fried-egg sandwich.
Definitely a place to go, and if you're visiting Disneyland this is close by and cheap.
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