Little Saigon, a sprawling suburban neighborhood in Orange County, is home to the largest population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. While I am familiar with Saigon’s culinary scene, when it comes to its American counterpart, I still have much to learn.
The city’s major arteries of Westminster, Brookhurst, and Bolsa are bustling with businesses hawking everything under the Vietnamese sun: from music to clothing to house wares and of course, food. What’s most notable about the Vietnamese food found in Little Saigon is the regional diversity. The distinct culinary styles of Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnam are well-represented and executed as authentically as America allows.
Growing up an hour and a half south in San Diego, I used to travel to Little Saigon with my grandparents every couple of years to visit their friends who resided in the area. The highlight of these trips for me was the meals we shared at Viễn Đông restaurant. My grandparents always dined here for the Northern Vietnamese fare (mon bac)—specific regional specialties that aren’t in my family’s culinary repertoire.
A recent road trip to San Diego with The Astronomer provided the perfect excuse to revisit Viễn Đông.
Viễn Đông is housed in a clean, spacious, and impressively understated (by Vietnamese standards) space. The restaurant was fairly empty the late Friday afternoon we dined, which meant prompt and pleasant service from start to finish.
I ordered a bowl of bun rieu oc tom moc ($6.75), one of my family’s standbys at Viễn Đông. Even though I’ve been back in America for nearly a year, I still can’t get over how large the portions are at Vietnamese restaurants here. The enormous bowl of bun rieu was filled with hunks of fried tofu, ground crab, vermicelli noodles, meatballs, tomatoes, and periwinkle snails. The orange-tinged broth was hot and sour, just the way I like it.
The bun rieu was served with a plate of garnishes that included bean sprouts, shredded romaine lettuce, a wedge of lime, and mam ruoc (fermented shrimp paste).
The Astronomer’s Cha Ca Thanh Long ($12.95) arrived on a sizzling platter that filled the air with the awesome scent of seared fresh dill. The generous fillet of turmeric-laced catfish was adorned with heaps of onions and scallions.
Everything about this dish was excellent, except that it wasn’t served Hanoi-style—in a pan atop a butane burner. The sizzling platter cooled down too fast, leaving the green and white onions mostly raw.
Accompanying the fish were warm vermicelli noodles, a mountain of fresh herbs, rice crackers, and toasted peanuts.
The perfect bowl of Cha Ca Thanh Long marries all of the ingredients together—a layer of noodles topped with chunks of fish, a smattering of peanuts, shattered rice crackers, an abundance of aromatics, and a drizzle of mam ruoc or nuoc cham.
Our Northern Vietnamese lunch at Viễn Đông left us stuffed to the gills and full of giddy memories from our travels.
Viễn Đông Restaurant
14271 Brookhurst Street
Garden Grove, CA 92843