I was not exposed to much Vietnamese food growing up, but once I was, I was spoiled for choice, flavor and authenticity. A Vietnamese-born friend of mine introduced me to her mother's cooking. Her mother, who also immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam, was a personal chef specializing in authentic, Vietnamese cuisine, and she was a genius at preparing it.
She made the more common dishes seen in the U.S. such as phở and garlic noodles excellently, but what opened my mind and tantalized my palate were the dishes she prepared that I had never before experienced such as rice stuffed with pork and shrimp steamed in banana leaves, spicy noodle soup with pork and beef, raw mango dipped in a spicy fish sauce and homemade sausages.
I searched restaurants in the Bay Area to find these items, but the closest I came was some authentic Bún Bò Huế, tucked away in a strip mall in San Jose. Then I came to Southern California. Is this where all the variety and authenticity in Vietnamese cuisine has been hiding or was I just not looking in any of the right places in Northern California? I don't know what the answer is, but here are some gems I have discovered in SoCal that remind me of my friend's mom's cooking.
On Pacific Coast Highway, in Huntington Beach, California is where you will find this hidden speakeasy serving traditional, Southern Vietnamese favorites. Access to this clandestine gem is through its parent restaurant, Bluegold. Once inside, you'll find LSXO next to a wine cellar and behind an unmarked door.
With capacity for a mere 28, every seat has a near perfect view of the sparkling, Pacific Ocean.
The intimate setting, innovative cocktails, authentic food and the unobstructed ocean views, make this restaurant worth a trip.
Thyme infused hand towels refresh you before you delve into your meal.
Grilled Bread with Pickled Vegetable, Pâtés and Honey Butter
Imperial Rolls with Shrimp, Crab, Pork, Taro Root, Glass Noodles, Roasted Peanuts and Chili-Lime Sauce
Shrimp and Crab Dumplings, Spicy Black Vin Dressing, Chives, Spinach, Peanuts
'Banh Xeo', Prawns, Pork Belly, Bean Sprout, Herbs and Greens, House Dressing
Mint, Thai Basil, Noodles, Salted Peanuts, Fresno Chilis, Jalapeños, Red Onion, Pickled Carrots and Radish, Romaine Lettuce and Nước Chấm (dipping sauce made with fish sauce, lime, chili and sugar)
The accessories for the crepes were divine and great enhancements, but also delicious mixed together on their own.
I was told that the proper way to eat these crepes is to take a little bit of each ingredient sprinkled with the nước chấm and place it all inside a Romaine leaf to create a lettuce wrap. This is one of the best dishes I have eaten. Every texture and flavor was present: crispy, tangy, succulent, sweet, tender, spicy, sour...
The Butterfly Effect
Vodka, Elderflower, Lychee, Yuzu, Grapefruit and Egg White
The food is outstanding here, but don't forget about the elegant and creative cocktails. This is a speakeasy after all.
The music is always one of my favorite parts of the dining experience here. The soundtrack features golden era hip hop - the best kind, in my opinion.
This place is a must-visit for the food, the drinks, the ambiance and the views.
This is the best picture I could possibly take of the restaurant's exterior. At Bến Ngự, located in Garden Grove, California, the focus is on the food, not the signage. That was just fine with me because the food was great. Every dish I tasted here was a juxtaposition of crispy and chewy textures - a combination I have rarely experienced, but enjoyed. The "crispy" speaks for itself but the "chewy" was an uncommon type of chewy for me. Think of a very soft, glutinous, pliable, sticky, type of "chewy."
Combination Plate of Bánh Bột Lọc Tran, Bánh Nậm and Bánh Bèo Dĩa
I will explain these dishes more thoroughly below.
Bánh Bột Lọc Tran
Tapioca Dumpling Stuffed with Shrimp and Pork, Topped with Scallions and Fried Shallots and Served with Fish Sauce
These bite sized dumplings are a pop of all kinds of flavors and textures. I could snack on these all day.
Steamed Rice Dumplings With Shrimp and Pork
These dumplings are stuffed with shrimp and pork like the ones above, but then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. I added a dab of chili oil for some heat.
Bánh Bèo Dĩa
Steamed Rice Cakes Topped with Dried, Minced Shrimp, Crispy Shallots, Green Onions, and Fried Pork Skin
Dip these in the house-made fish sauce for a bite of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.
Bánh Ít Kẹp Bánh Ram
Steamed Mochi Dumplings Stuffed with Pork and Shrimp and Topped with Ground Pork, Shrimp and Scallions Sitting Atop a Fried Rice Cake
Regarding chewy versus crispy textures which I referenced earlier, this dish combined those two textures at their extremes. The rice cakes were extremely crispy while the filling was sticky, gooey and gummy. In fact, it was a little too gummy for my palate, but the flavors were great and I would recommend trying it yourself to see how you enjoy it.
Phở 79, like the previous restaurant, is also located in Garden Grove, California. Garden Grove is less than five miles from Disneyland. This city, as well as neighboring Westminster, comprise the majority of Orange County's Little Saigon. Little Saigon is a popular area to immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture, as it is one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam.
This ethnic enclave, which began in the 1970s, has continued to expand, bringing new businesses, religious practices, art, and restaurants like Phở 79 to the area. Phở 79, like the sign states, is a James Beard award recipient. It also holds a Michelin Bib Gourmand distinction. With all of those accolades, the wait can be long, but worth it.
Soft Rice Paper Roll with Shrimp and Pork
This is a dish I have eaten many times, but none was as delicious as Phở 79's preparation. I think what made it stand out, was how well-seasoned the pork was. The flavor of lemongrass permeated the generous and caramelized pieces of pork.
Garnish for the Phở
Since the place is called Phở 79, I decided to order the entree they are most celebrated for -- the phở. All of the usual garnishes for the soup were present: rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), húng quế (Thai basil), beansprouts, jalapeños, lime and one pleasant surprise that I rarely see.
It is a herb called "ngò gai" in Vietnamese and "sawtooth" in English. Sawtooth is a type of coriander that is native to Mexico, South and Central America and tastes, to me, like a citrusy cilantro. It was a lovely addition to the soup.
Phở Đặc Biệt
I have learned from experts that the single most important element of phở is the broth. It is made by searing beef bones and then layering flavors of ginger, onion, cardamom, fennel, star anise, cinnamon, and letting them meld together for hours and hours, to create a rich and fragrant broth.
Since the broth is the soul of this dish, when it arrives on your table, first take a sip of the broth alone and that will tell you almost everything you need to know about the overall quality of the soup. This broth was nothing short of phenomenal, as was the soup with all of its combined elements. With one spoonful, it became clear to me why this restaurant is racking up all their awards.
Xí Quách Đuôi Bò
Phở 79 also offers a side of braised oxtail which I strongly recommend. You can add pieces of it to the soup, to take it to another level, or enjoy it on its own. The oxtail was so flavorful; it fell right off the bone and melted in my mouth.
That's it for this review of great Vietnamese food. Let me know if you get a chance to try these, or any other Vietnamese restaurants that you would recommend.