When the last helicopter pulled out of Saigon 36 years ago, the Vietnamese population in American numbered in the thousands. Today, there an estimated 1.6 million Vietnamese Americans, with more than 135,000 of them in Orange County, the largest community outside of Vietnam. I've written extensively before about the history of Little Saigon and by extension, Vietnamese American history. So let's move the discussion further to how food and culture assert themselves into the American landscape.
In my musings on American cuisine, I argue that our food is made up of ethnic absorption and mass popularization. American cuisine is a reflection of America itself. Our strength lies in our ability to absorb other cuisines and their culture. No more so is that evident than last month's addition of banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich, into the Oxford English Dictionary. These days, with trendy bars hawking banh mi sliders and Korean Americans selling their version of Pho Bo (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup), having a few Vietnamese dishes enter the American lexicon still doesn't really tell you much about the cuisine.
Needless to say, Vietnamese cuisine is far, far more than sandwiches and beef noodle soup.
According to the Westminster Chamber of Commerce, there are an estimated 3,500 businesses in Little Saigon. How many of these businesses are restaurants is anyone's guess. How these businesses survive and distinguish themselves amongst Southern California's endless strips malls is even further mystery. One could ostensibly spend an entire day eating through Vietnamese regional cuisine, starting from the Red River Delta in the North with its use of dill and turmeric to the Central coast with its imperial dumplings and rice paper rolls to the Mekong Delta in the south with its Chinese- and Cambodian-influenced noodle soups. And let's not forget the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine with the ubiquitous banh mi and iced coffee and yogurt. Yes, yes, yes, to all of the above and perhaps a freshly squeezed sugarcane juice too?
When my advertiser, Foodbuzz, approved of my proposal to explore Vietnamese regional cuisine in Little Saigon for this month's 24x24, I wanted to use the opportunity to do more than just feed my friends. I figured this was the perfect chance to educate others about Vietnamese cuisine and to help Japan. I would use my stipend from Foodbuzz to pay for the meals if people were willing to donate $50 to various charities. Three readers (Mary Ruth, Lisa, and Sarah and her +1 (Daniel), and one Gourmet Pigs stepped up to the plate.
If I were to make sweeping generalizations about Vietnamese cuisine, then I would say the stereotype is that Northerners tend to prefer blander flavors and with a colder climate, have less fresh herbs available to eat. For instance, a true pho Bac (Vietnamese Northern-style beef noodle soup) would feature noodles, broth, a little bit of minced beef, and onions. That's it. The plate of basil and bean sprouts are a Southern addition. You wouldn't catch a Northerner adding Sriracha or hoisin sauce into the broth, as it's already supposed to be perfectly balanced. Northern cuisine also features the use of dill, an herb that people in the Central and Southern regions of Vietnam definitely do not cook with and often find very odd.
As an introduction to Northern cuisine, I decided to start at Vien Dong Restaurant - Garden Grove because it was formerly owned by Tony Lam, who in 1992 was the first Vietnamese American elected to public office. He is no longer the owner, and several other restaurants specializing in Northern Vietnamese cuisine have opened since, but I thought its historical and culinary significance served as a good gateway to learn about both the community and the food.
While we waited for the others to arrive, GP and Mary Ruth ordered Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese Milk Coffee Iced) while I got a Sinh To Bo (Vietnamese Avocado Shake). I mainly ordered the smoothie because of the 30% off sign, not realizing that no one at the table had ever had one before. Really! As everyone spooned out a taste, I realized that perhaps everyone knew even less about Vietnamese cuisine than I had expected.
I ordered Cha Gio (Vietnamese Spring/Egg Rolls) because Vien Dong uses traditional Vietnamese rice paper wrappers and I wanted people to compare them to Chinese wheat wrappers, which have become more popularized in America. The traditional rice paper wrappers have a different crispness when fried.
I also ordered Banh Tom (Vietnamese Shrimp and Yam Fritters), which are lightly coated in a turmeric batter.
Bun Cha Hanoi Nem Ran (Vietnamese Hanoi-Style Rice Vermicelli Noodles with Grilled Pork Patties and Egg Rolls). What followed was a bit of instruction in how to eat these dishes. For the former two, wrap in lettuce and dip in Nuoc Mam Cham (Vietnamese Fish Dipping Sauce). For the latter, assemble your own bowl with the noodles and herbs and meat.
Bun Oc (Vietnamese Snail Noodle Soup). This didn't go over as well with the others as with me, but then I love sea snails. Everyone else seemed to enjoy the tomato-laden broth though.
Bun Moc (Vietnamese Peppery Pork Ball Noodle Soup). This simple soup is what I often think of as the stereotype of Northern Vietnamese cuisine, not so many ingredients and rather bland in flavor.
Cha Ca Thang Long (Vietnamese Hanoi-Style Turmeric Fish with Dill). In Hanoi, at Cha Ca La Vong restaurant where this dish originated, the family has been making this dish for hundreds of years on Cha Ca street, which named itself after the dish. At the restaurant, the fish is swimming in a small pool of oil in a pan atop a charcoal brazier. Add the green onions and dill to cook in the pan and then assemble into bowls with noodles.
At Vien Dong, the fish used is tilapia, instead of the traditional snakehead fish, and it comes out on a sizzling plate, minus the pool of oil. Not as much dill as is used in Vietnam, but the turmeric and dill aromas distinctly fill the air. It came with a plate of herbs, noodles, toasted sesame rice paper, peanuts, and Mam Ruoc (Vietnamese Fermented Shrimp Paste). Assemble the ingredients into a bowl and pour the fermented shrimp sauce on top.
I also ordered bun bung (Vietnamese spare ribs noodle soup with plantains, tofu, and taro stem). Decades ago when I first dined at Vien Dong, but at its former location, with my college roommate, I was intrigued by the plantains in the soup. I left feeling like the ingredients sounded more exotic than the taste. This time around, perhaps because I pay more attention to ingredients now, I found it an interesting mixture of tastes. I've always enjoyed taro stems in my Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) and the use of it in a noodle soup was quite different for me. I'll have to try this again to see if I can pick apart the ingredients and replicate it at home.
The total for lunch was $62 before tip. Rather stuffed, we left the restaurant headed for what I deemed the "educational" portion of the day. Not related to anything, but this panda car parked outside the restaurant was too cute not to photograph and share.
Our next stop was the Asian Village Mall, on Bolsa Avenue in the heart of Little Saigon. Long ago, the New Saigon Mall was located even further back in this parking lot and the murals and statues showed off Vietnamese culture to visitors. Unfortunately, the mall was located so far back that it never got much foot traffic and the property has now been turned into homes. Nonetheless, the murals and statues of Confucius and his disciples remain.
Legend has it that the Vietnamese are descended from Lac Long Quan, a dragon king, and Au Co, a fairy queen. She laid 100 eggs, which became the Vietnamese people. Unfortunately, a dragon king who hails from the sea, and a fairy queen who belongs in the mountains could not live together. So they divided up the children and it is said that when the monsoons come each year, the dragon king is trying to reunite with his bride.
Every year for Tet (Vietnamese New Year), it is tradition to make banh chung and banh tet (Vietnamese sticky rice cakes). The story goes that the 6th Hung Vuong king offered a challenge to find the dish that best represents Vietnam to succeed his throne. Lang Lieu, the 18th prince, and thus the poorest, could not afford to travel to find the most exotic delicacies. One night, a genie came to him in a dream and instructed him on how to make these rice cakes using basic ingredients -- rice, pork, mung beans, and banana leaves. The king found this dish the most delicious, but also that the prince's creation of a dish that all Vietnamese people could easily make meant that his wisdom showed he was the most suited to rule the throne.
The murals move from the beginnings of Vietnamese history, which are shrouded in legends and fairy tales to actual history.
In 43 AD, the two Trung sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, led a rebellion against Chinese forces. Though the women weren't successful, and ended up committing suicide by throwing themselves into the river so they wouldn't be captured, they are honored for having led the first of many rebellions against Chinese domination.
Confucius and his disciples.
From here we walked across the street to the Asian Garden Mall, the heart of Little Saigon. The front parking lot is often used as the backdrop for rallies for Republican candidates such as during the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain.
We walked around a bit and several of the others bought fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice.
On the way back across the street to the car, we passed by the original Lee's Sandwiches, which popularized the banh mi to many non-Vietnamese.
Our next stop was Quan Vy Da Restaurant - Westminster, which specializes in Central-style Vietnamese food. Only the best waterfront view for my readers! :P
Central Vietnamese food features more dumplings than the other regions. Part of that is because the last imperial capital was in Hue, in central Vietnam. An elaborate feast would be laid out for each meal and the king would try a nibble here and a nibble there. Since he couldn't possibly eat that much, dumplings and small bites were the perfect solution.
One of my favorite dumplings is banh beo (Vietnamese steamed rice discs) topped with ground shrimp and fried shallots. An order here is a dozen small dishes. Add a pork rind if you wish for crunch, pour fish sauce on top, and spoon it out.
Mi Quang (Vietnamese Turmeric Noodles with Pork and Shrimp). The further south you go, the more broth is in the noodles. It's not dry or soupy, but somewhere in between.
Banh it ram (Vietnamese steamed pork and shrimp dumpling atop a fried disc). Contrasting gooey and crispy textures.
Hen xao xuc banh trang (Vietnamese baby clams scooped with toasted rice paper). The city of Hue is famous for many of these small clam dishes.
Total for lunch #2 was $34. Only a few dishes here because our next stop was Brodard Restaurant - Garden Grove. The restaurant's specialty are Nem Nuong Cuon (Vietnamese Grilled Pork Patty Salad Rolls) and shrimp paste rolls, which are technically south-Central Vietnamese. I figured everyone would like to try the rice paper wrappers, which we hadn't eaten yet at the other two restaurants, and then order a few dishes that represent Southern cuisine.
Southern cuisine, by contrast to the North, features more herbs and vegetables since the warmer climate means more fresh greens are available. The custom of wrapping almost everything in a big lettuce leaf with herbs and dipping it into fish sauce is a Southern tradition that has expanded to most Vietnamese restaurants in America. With the Mekong Delta and the large coastline, Southern food also has a lot of seafood dishes. Also, since more Chinese settled in this area than any other, and with some Cambodians who stayed after Vietnam took over the area, both cultures influenced the cuisine.
Banh Khot (Vietnamese Luna Rice Cakes), as the restaurant calls them, are small crispy turmeric dumplings with shrimp that originated in the southern port city of Vung Tau. Wrap these in lettuce and herbs and dip into fish sauce.
I also ordered mi Trieu Chau (Vietnamese Chiu Chow-style egg noodles with Chinese barbecued pork and shrimp). Saigon was settled by Ming dynasty generals who were offered land in exchange for pushing out the Cambodians who were already in the area. In later years, other Chinese ethnic groups came and settled in Cho Lon, Saigon's Chinatown which numbered several million people until the majority of them were forced out after the end of the Vietnam War.
Another similar soup is hu tieu Nam Vang (Vietnamese Phnom Penh-style clear noodle soup). Actually, the Chinese version is supposed to have barbecued pork, shrimp, and Chinese celery. The Cambodian version has ground pork, liver slices, and quail eggs. Brodard's versions make both the same, with the different noodles as the only difference.
Have macarons jumped the shark if Vietnamese restaurants have started selling them now? Brodard's macarons were actually quite decent and only $1 each. The purple macarons were taro-flavored and the white ones were coconut-flavored. There was also coffee-chocolate and pistachio flavors. I bought several for everyone to taste.
Total here was $50 before tip. Then we went to Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie - Garden Grove for dessert. Two of them split a chocolate eclair while the other two had a coconut macaroon. Aww. How nice. Whether everyone was too full at this point, or whether they were conscientious that I was paying for everything, I appreciated that no one went crazy ordering stuff. I also grabbed a chocolate almond croissant for later.
As we ate dessert, we started talking about the Vietnam War since it was April 30th after all. So we decided to stop by the Vietnam War Memorial to see Fall of Saigon commemorations before ending our day. That's where everyone was! I was rather mystified that I was able to find parking and didn't have to wait for a table at any of the restaurants, a rarity whenever I venture into Little Saigon.
The memorial, which features statues of an American and a South Vietnamese soldier, commemorates the friendship between the two. South Vietnamese soldiers are treated as traitors in Vietnam, and are often overlooked when Americans think of the Vietnam War. The memorial is one of the few places where South Vietnamese soldiers are honored and often serves as a rallying spot for the South Vietnamese military veterans and the Vietnamese American community.
Since I am talking about Vietnamese regional cuisine today, in case you didn't know, the three red stripes on the South Vietnamese flag stand for the three regions of Vietnam.
We observed from across the street for a little while before heading home. While I understand the Vietnamese American community's need to commemorate this day, it's just too much dwelling on the past for me.
I chose to honor this day differently. Sure we've been talking about food, but that merely served as a conduit to educate others about Vietnamese legend, history, and culture. One reader said she'd come back to eat at all of the restaurants we ate at today. Another works literally in the neighborhood, but was always too intimidated to visit anywhere except Lee's Sandwiches. Others expanded their Vietnamese culinary repertoire beyond banh mi and pho. Even through reading this post, I hope your knowledge of Vietnamese food, history, and culture has expanded too. There are sooo very many Vietnamese dishes that each region has to offer and so many other restaurants in Little Saigon to try. Sometimes, we all need a little push or a guide to help us jumpstart exploring for ourselves.
Thanks to my readers for coming out and for donating $150 went to the Red Cross and $50 to Socks for Japan. And thanks to Foodbuzz for sponsoring the event.
Asian Garden Mall
9200 Bolsa Ave.
Westminster, CA 92683
Asian Village Center (Where the murals and statues are located.)
9211 Bolsa Ave.
Westminster, CA 92683
Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie
14352 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
9892 Westminster Ave., Ste. R
Garden Grove, CA 92844
Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Quan Vy Da Restaurant
9950 Bolsa Ave., #A-B
Westminster, CA 92683
Tuesday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Vien Dong Restaurant
14271 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
Vietnam War Memorial
Sid Goldstein Freedom Park
14180 All American Way
Westminster, CA 92683
1 year ago today, Ask Wandering Chopsticks 8.
2 years ago today, Autumn Sunset climbing rose.
3 years ago today, boat people, my friend Don, and his mom's pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup).
4 years ago today, after a cold frost, everything's growing again in my garden.