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REVIEW: Quán Minh Ký, Little Saigon

Das Ubergeek | Mar 8, 200809:27 PM

I'm bored. And spoiled.

Anywhere else in the country (with the possible exceptions of San Jose, Houston and New York), I'd be lucky to have one pho shop and maybe one banh mi shop. The pho shop would charge $9.95 for a bowl of regular pho tai, and the banh mi would be $7.50 each.

But I live in Orange County, which is the centre of the Vietnamese diaspora. We have more Vietnamese immigrants than Paris. Banh mi shops are thick on the ground, and while the price has gone up recently, any more than about $2.50 per sandwich leaves me going, "But WHY??"

We have more pho shops than Carter has pills; you can get a fantastic bowl of bun with your choice of unbelievably scrumptious toppings (those spring rolls, my God! and let's not forget the grilled fish, cha ca Thanh Long -- or the pork -- or the nem nuong -- or the dau hu ky...); mi, hu tieu and pho xao are abundant; even bo bay mon (seven courses of beef) is fairly commonplace.

And I'm bored. So I decided to go to Quan Hy tonight.

Except that...damn... it's gone! BOTH of them. The one on Westminster is some random place with people smoking inside -- which is NOT OKAY when I've got my wife and ten-month-old daughter in tow. The one on Bolsa turned into Quán Minh Ký. By the time we got to Bolsa's Catinat Plaza, it was either try the latter or just get banh mi from Banh Mi Che Cali once again.

So we went in and sat down. It's "Atmosphere B" by Little Saigon standards. You see, Atmosphere "A" is places like S Vietnamese Cuisine or Xanh Bistro or the (now late) Quan Hy, where you stand a chance of friendly service, an English-accessible menu, and high prices (though in Little Saigon this means $12-$15 entrees). Atmosphere "C" is places where you walk in, seat yourself, get a menu thrown at you, and thirty seconds later are expected to place your order. Places like Com Tam Thuan Kieu and Pho 86 fall into this category. Atmosphere "D" is where you walk in, have to shove to a counter, bawl your order, and get shouted at when they mess it up. If you've been to the Banh Mi Che Cali on Brookhurst near the Boiling Crab, this is what I'm talking about.

Atmosphere "B", then, is like C but with nicer furnishings. You still have to go up and pay at the cashier when you're done, and it's still diner-style paper napkins in holders on each table, but the service is at least polite and you may be able to ask questions in English.

This describes Quán Minh Ký to a "T". But what we weren't expecting (given that they advertised mì (egg noodle soup) and bò lúc lắc (shaken beef) on the window of the restaurant) was the surprisingly long list of tasty-sounding Vietnamese specialities.

When was the last time you went to a Vietnamese restaurant and had roast chicken with citronella leaves and salted plum dip? Or grilled venison loin skewers with house special sauce? Or five-spice grilled alligator?

Phở this ain't.

We punted on the alligator (I've only had it once and it was the chewiest damn meat I've ever had), and punted on the four variations on bò lúc lắc. Roast chicken, venison loin skewers and steamed sticky rice it was.

English is spoken -- somewhat. The gentleman who sat us knew "high chair" but was stumped by a request for water with no ice. The waitresses were very kind and surprised to see us (and even more surprised when I ordered in my pidgin Vietnamese -- I was somewhat glad kingkong5 wasn't there to hear me butcher his ancestral tongue!) but English was definitely not happening there.

Rice came out, and my cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) came out -- premade, unfortunately, but you can't win them all, along with two small dishes. One was a dish of finely ground white pepper with lime wedges; you squeeze the juice of one of the lime wedges into the pepper and mix it to make a dipping "sauce". The other was the salted-plum sauce for the chicken.

The deer hit first; four skewers ($9.95) with the required tomato, cucumber and lettuce salad. The sauce was peppery and unctuous, and as we slid the venison cubes into our rice bowls, we got a hit of chili scent. The meat was delicious, tender and well-cooked, and better dipped into the lime-pepper sauce. The vegetables, which are not meant to be eaten as a salad, cut through the slight oiliness beautifully.

Then the chicken came, a Cornish game hen cut into pieces in foil to keep it hot ($10.95). Mrs Ubergeek nearly burned the tips of her fingers off when she opened the foil packet and got the huge hit of lemon-scented steam. Another "table salad" appeared, this time with onions and rau ram (spicy herb somewhat like hot cilantro) in place of the cucumbers.

By itself, the chicken was a little too lemony -- but dipped into the salted plum sauce with a leaf of rau ram and maybe a piece of garlic (in vinegar on the table), it was unbelievable.

I was trying to eat it delicately when the woman facing me at the next table shook her head, picked up a piece of HER roasted chicken with her fingers, and proceeded to clean it without any regard for noise. Once I followed her example, she smiled and gave me a wink. I dug into the bones (across which the chicken was cut) with a chopstick to get the rich, black marrow out.

I wish I'd remembered to order a canh (thin soup) and a vegetable. It would have been a complete meal then. As it was, we paid up, left a decent tip, and headed over to Banh Mi Che Cali for their "mua 2 tặng 1" che special (buy two, get one free -- i.e., three containers of che for $3) and to the fruit market down the plaza to see what exotic fruits were available (just cherimoya, which was not exciting, though they were selling pitaya trees for $20).

I liked Quán Minh Ký and we're already planning to go back... I do miss Quán Hý but this will serve nicely for when we want something a little bit different.

Quán Minh Ký
9741 Bolsa Ave., Suite 108
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 839-8734

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