I’ve been thinking a lot about Pok Pok’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings since my trip to Portland last fall. The perfect marriage of crispy chicken and potent nuoc mam, these unforgettable wings left my fingers sticky, my lips lacquered, and my stomach craving more.
Since jetting off to The Beaver State whenever a hankering hits isn’t very practical, I am on a mission to find a local source for similarly delectable wings. First stop: Cafe Artist in Orange County. This spot came recommended to me by Anh, a Gastronomy reader.
Located in the same Little Saigon strip mall as Vien Dong restaurant, Cafe Artist is one of the most popular quan nhau (watering holes) in the neighborhood. The place opens at 1:30 PM and stays bumpin’ till late.
The Astronomer and I, along with my friend Anne, came in for lunch and snagged a table on the patio. I’d heard that it gets loud and smokey once the regular crowd files in, so I was quite pleased that we had the place to ourselves at this hour.
We ordered five dishes between the three of us and managed to finish them all. First up was a hefty platter of oc len xao dua ($11.99),
cockles sea snails simmered in an irresistible lemongrass, red curry, and coconut broth.
As instructed by our waitress, we sucked with all our might to release the cockles from their shells. Mmm! Bowls of steamed rice were requested to make good use of the fabulous broth.
Continue reading ‘Cafe Artist – Garden Grove’
Banh Xeo Quan, also known as Mr. Rice, specializes in southern-style Vietnamese crepes*. Owner Phi Tran, who hails from Saigon, opened the restaurant in Rosemead some five years ago to bring this specialty to the San Gabriel Valley. This place came highly recommended to me by my lovely friend Thien. She and her family have been dining here for years, so I knew I was in for a treat.
A refreshingly succinct menu, neatly laminated and fully photographed, greeted us upon arrival. In addition to its namesake banh xeo, the restaurant also prepared rice dishes, noodle soups, and hot vit lon, fetal duck eggs. Although a banh mi hot dog and soda combo was unbeatably priced at $2.75, no one bit the bullet.
We passed on boba and beer and settled on freshly pressed nuoc mia (sugarcane juice) and minty green nuoc dau xanh la dua (mung bean milk with pandan). Both were excellent.
Continue reading ‘Bánh Xèo Quán – Rosemead’
While I’ve shared quite a bit about my great aunt Bà Sáu (left) on the site [See: here, here, and here], I’ve yet to mention my awesome aunt Loan (right). She is Bà Sáu’s youngest daughter and has an encyclopedic knowledge of anything and everything worth eating in Saigon. From street food to fancy dining rooms, she’s my go-to source for local haunts worth seeking out.
On my trip to Vietnam this past September, she pointed me to her favorite spots for bánh mì, xôi gà (chicken sticky rice), and chuối nếp nướng (glutinous bananas). All three were smashingly good.
For the choicest banh mi in Saigon, my aunt sent me to Bánh Mì Huynh Hoa in District 1. The fluorescent lit storefront does brisk takeout business from four in the afternoon until late into the night.
According to my friend Lien, the establishment is run by a family of transgendered individuals, but truth be told, I hardly noticed when I stopped in. All I could focus on was making my way through the crowds and snagging a sandwich as soon as possible.
Every banh mi dac biet is made on a fresh and crisp baguette with a heady smear of pork pate and mayonnaise, slices of head cheese and ham, a tangle of pork floss, pickled vegetables, and deadly hot chilies. When taken all together, the flavors and textures meld, enhance one another, and seduce.
Continue reading ‘Family Knows Best: Saigon’s Finest Bánh Mì, Glutinous Bananas, and Chicken Sticky Rice’
The Astronomer and I began our third day in Saigon across the river in District 4, a densely packed island we called home for the better part of a year. In the three years since we’ve been gone, the old neighborhood has undergone quite a makeover. While the river is still as murky as ever, dirt roads have been transformed into sturdy bridges and run-down shacks have given way to shiny highrises. The lay of the land was so unfamiliar that The Astronomer had trouble navigating the streets at several turns. Rapid development can be mighty disorienting.
Fortunately, the vibrant street food scene hasn’t changed one bit. After stopping to pick up some xoi gac from my my favorite sticky rice vendor on Ton That Thuyet Street (pictured above), we searched the district for more good eats.
The smell of grilled seasoned beef wrapped in betel leaves brought our motorbike to a rapid halt. Even though we had just eaten bo la lot a few meals ago, it was too tempting to pass up.
The Astronomer’s bowl of bun bo la lot was piled high with herbs and sprouts tucked underneath a tangle of cool vermicelli noodles, peanuts, pickled carrots and daikon, and a swipe of crushed fresh chilies. Everything was evenly dressed with fish sauce. The best bites included a pinky-sized bo la lot nugget.
Continue reading ‘District 4, Saigon: Our Home Away From Home’