The scent of Little Saigon hits me in the face.
An intoxicating perfume of jackfruit and bananas and the vanilla-y scent of pandanus leaves wraps itself around me in a warm, tight embrace. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and the line to purchase something cold and sweet at Thach Che Hien Khanh in Garden Grove stretches out the front door and down the sidewalk, past a vendor of exotic fruits and knickknacks — chopsticks, paper lanterns, plastic Buddhas, various figurines of the lunar zodiac. Incense from a nearby shop muscles itself into the mix. As I get closer to the dessert counter, I see dozens of wildly colorful puddings and cakes and sheet-pans filled with fluorescent mounds of sticky rice.
The young woman directly in front of me is nervously eying something in the display case. “Ohhhh,” she says, anxiously tugging on her friend’s arm every time someone orders one.
“I know, I know,” her cohort responds. “The last two times I waited in this line, they sold out before I could get to the front.”
I can see now what they’re talking about. It’s something I will later learn is called banh da lon, which resembles a layer cake but is actually alternating ribbons of bright green and yellowish gelatin made from pandanus leaves, coconut and mung beans. They are flying off the shelf, but everyone on this day, including me, seems able to score at least one.
I want to taste more than just banh da lon, though.
“What’s that over there?” I ask, pointing to a tray of technicolor pudding. The woman behind the counter stares at me blankly, unable to understand the gibberish that’s coming from my mouth. She turns to a co-worker, who just shrugs and smiles. Lifting her ladle, she makes a motion that I translate to mean, “How much would you like?”
I change tack. I see something that looks like the sweet corn porridge I discovered earlier this year at a street vendor in Vietnam, so I point to that one instead. “I’ll take some of that,” I say. “And a No. 3 che,” pointing to the colorful milk tea pictured on the wall with “#3” on it. I have no idea what’s in it, but it looks like a fun mix of green, white, blue and red squiggles.
After visiting Vietnam again in February, I decided it was time that I got to know Little Saigon a little better. It’s an exploration that began even before I moved to Orange County, thanks to a couple of Vietnamese-American friends who live in Garden Grove and eat out daily. They took me under their wings and introduced me to all of their favorites before turning me loose to explore on my own. In all, I have dined at more than 50 restaurants in Westminster, Garden Grove and Fountain Valley. It sometimes feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Little Saigon can easily overwhelm. There are thousands of restaurants to consider, many of which don’t offer menus in English, or menus at all. It’s a collision of two worlds, not of east and west but rather of old and new. Old barbecue joints — with ducks hanging by their necks and pigs by their tails — exist alongside trendy shaved-ice parlors and noodle cafes.
It’s common to see old men squatting on plastic stools and smoking cigarettes outside one shop, while next door you see teenagers wearing fancy designer jeans and sending text messages between slurps of milk tea. But where the generations overlap, there is great food. Lots of it.
UPDATE: It’s been two years since I published my guide to dining in Orange County’s sprawling Little Saigon.
A lot has changed since then, while at the same time some things never change. Three restaurants in that original tour (Vien Dong, Red Crab and Fusion 11) have closed, while others (Tra House and Rice Paper) have undergone such dramatic staffing and menu changes that they no longer merit inclusion.
For some of these places I have found suitable substitutes or something even better. The Imperial Rolls at Binh Minh, for example, are every bit as great as the ones formerly served at Vien Dong, and that’s saying a lot.
Sadly, I still haven’t found a bun rieu (crab soup) that I like nearly as much as the one served at the dearly departed Red Crab.
But on a happy note, Red Crab has been replaced by one of my new all-time favorites, Vua Bun Bo Cali, which serves a marrow bone soup like none other.
Here’s the revised guide to the 25 best Vietnamese restaurants in Little Saigon for 2017. All of these restaurants are open daily unless noted.
Must order: lacquered duck or soy sauce chicken. Chinese barbecue became an integral component in Vietnamese cooking long, long ago, and it’s a tradition that has thankfully not been lost in Little Saigon. There’s a longstanding rivalry in the community between barbecue legends New Duong Son and Lien Hoa, both of which have multiple locations. But there’s a new sheriff in town giving the old-timers a run for their money. BBQ One sells essentially the same things as the others: barbecue duck, barbecue pork and soy sauce chicken. However, BBQ One is the only one with a place to sit, whereas the classics offer only takeout. BBQ One, 9299 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-898-0800.
Must order: banh cuon and banh tom. “It’s good, isn’t it?” I look around to see who asked that, since it sounds like the question was directed at me, having just taken a bite of the banh cuon. I look to my left and notice my waitress, who might also be the owner, sitting down to lunch herself. She’s smiling at me, excitedly awaiting my reaction. I nod enthusiastically, my mouth still full of delicious rice sheets (banh cuon) that have been sprinkled with ground pork and mushrooms and rolled into neat little logs. I’ve ordered the No. 1 combo, which comes with a simple salad of cucumbers and bean sprouts, plus deep-fried shrimp and sweet potato fritters (banh tom), a multigrain muffin, and some sort of strangely white luncheon meat. I don’t care for the luncheon meat, but everything else is fantastic. 9822 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-531-5171. Closed Thursdays.
Must order: cha gio. Fried egg rolls, also known as Imperial Rolls or cha gio, are a quintessential component of Vietnamese cuisine, and now that Vien Dong has closed, the next best place to get your Imperial Roll fix is this classic Hanoi specialist at the Mall of Fortune. The rice-paper skins are fried to an audible crunch. They come with a pile of lettuce and herbs, which you can use to wrap them if you wish. 9908 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove; 714-636-7103. Closed Wednesdays.
Must order: nem nuong cuon. Please don’t confuse this place with Brodard Chateau, which is a much swankier place from the same owners but with a dramatically less interesting kitchen. This is the original, and it will soon be moving to a location on Brookhurst. Be prepared to brave a long wait in line as everyone clamors for Brodard’s famous nem nuong cuon, a type of spring roll made with grilled pork sausage and crisp wonton strips wrapped in rice paper. The sausage is slightly sweet and garlicky, but if you want more of a kick, there’s a jar of unpeeled garlic cloves and tongue-melting chilies on the table. The menu offers several types of spring rolls, and if you attempt to order anything other than nem nuong cuon, the waiter will likely correct you, as he did when I tried to work my way down the list. “You don’t want that one,” he insisted.“You want nem nuong cuon,” he said, tapping on the picture that’s on the cover of the menu. 9892 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove; 714-530-1744. Closed Tuesdays.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu
Must order: com tam. This place specializes in com tam, or broken rice, which is the shrapnel sifted out and separated from the whole grains. The toppings range from grilled shrimp to fried eggs, more than 60 possible combinations. But simpler is best: Go with the No. 16, topped with “charbroiled pork,” chives and a few random pieces of fried pig skin. Although they call it charbroiled, the pork actually appears to be stir-fried. The other thing of note on the menu here is the bun cha Hanoi, which is a bowl of grilled sausages and pork belly served with a pile of herbs and lettuce. 14282 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove; 714-531-4852.
Must order: garlic crab and pomelo salad. I like everything I’ve eaten at chef Kristin Nguyen’s wildly chaotic cafe. The house specialty and best thing on the menu is the wok-fried crab, cooked with jalapeños, dried chilies and literally handfuls of garlic – more garlic than you can possibly imagine – but you won’t regret it. Another standout is the pomelo salad with shrimp, which is easily one of the best salads in Little Saigon. 9892 Westminster Blvd., Garden Grove; 714-591-5196. Closed Wednesdays.
Góc Ha Noi Corner
Must order: banh cuon thit cha nuong Hanoi. The family that owned Pho Co Han Oi in Santa Ana recently sold that soup shop and opened this full-fledged cafe in Garden Grove instead. As the name suggests, they specialize in Hanoi-style cooking of the north. The bun cha Hanoi – grilled pork sausage and fatty pork with herbs, lettuce and sweetened fish sauce – is fantastic, but what’s even better is essentially the same dish but with slippery rice sheets (banh cuon) substituting for the thin rice noodles. I guarantee this will be one of your favorite dishes in Little Saigon. Also amazing is the iced green tea with salted cream; make sure to ask them to add boba pearls. 8516 Garden Grove Blvd.; Garden Grove 714-867-6665.
Must order: chicken pho. Everybody loves a bowl of steamy chicken noodle soup. And the pho ga at Hien Thanh is outstanding. The first and most important rule of pho is that the broth must be extremely hot – so hot that it can hurt you. This one lives up to that, so be careful. Blow on it. Be patient. You’ll appreciate the clean, subtle fragrance of the soup as you infuse it with mint and ginger. The noodles are supple, slippery perfection. 9741 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-887-9349.
Must order: banh beo chen. Countless restaurants serve these diminutive rice-flour pancakes, but they almost always come off as clumsy and messy, leaving most people to think that’s the way they’re supposed to be made. But if you go to Hue Oi, you will learn to appreciate their elegance and sophistication. Each little disc, about the size of a silver dollar, is topped with crushed dried shrimp, chopped scallions and a nugget of fried pork rind. Splash it with some decidedly nonfishy fish sauce and a pinch of chili, then pop it into your mouth. Pure joy. Also great here is the banh uot thit nuong sa (lemongrass pork with rice sheets). 16537 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley; 714-531-1305. Closed Tuesdays.
Must order: banh mi bo kho. This place is especially popular for weekend breakfast, where old-timers and college kids alike come together for ultra-strong Vietnamese coffee and plates of beef stew known as bo kho, served with exceptional French baguettes, or banh mi. Because it’s inexplicably served on a plate, rather than in a bowl, some of it will end up on the table. Try to sop it up with the baguette before that happens. 9122 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-895-3070.
Must order: banh mi and beignets. Everyone in Little Saigon has their favorite baguette stuffed with grilled pork or meatloaf, along with handfuls of pickled radish, fresh cucumber and jalapeño. For my money, which is merely a few bucks, nobody in Little Saigon makes a better Vietnamese grilled pork sandwich on a better, crustier French baguette than Lynda Sandwich. When you bite into it, you’ll end up with a thousand crumbs in your lap, which is how it should be. And you can’t leave here without an order of hot beignets. 15380 Beach Blvd., Westminster; 714-898-5400.
Must order: spicy bun bo Hue. When eating at Ngu Binh, the question is simply, “Large or small?” This is Little Saigon’s ultimate standard bearer for the beef noodle soup known as bun bo Hue, made with a spicy red-chili broth and enriched with cubes of jelly made from beef blood, plus meatballs and pork knuckles. In most other Vietnamese restaurants, the spiciness of this soup is left up to the customer. The base level is usually very mild. But here, on a scale of 1 to 10, the base level registers somewhere around 5 or 6. If you want it even spicier than that, there are jars of red chili sauce and whole bird’s-eye chilies on every table. Help yourself. 14092 Magnolia St., Westminster; 714-903-6000. Closed Mondays.
Must order: vegan bun bo Hue. It’s important to understand that bun bo Hue is typically a very hearty, spicy bowl of beef noodle soup with cubes of blood, plus meatballs, pig shanks, etc. Creating a vegetarian version of this is no easy feat, but this place does it, and it’s almost as good as the real thing. 8540 Westminster Blvd., Westminster; 714-225-5384.
Must order: snails and fried rice. “Do you know how to eat that?” the waiter asks as he places a skillet of snails atop a small tabletop burner. Bass-rattling hip-hop blares from the stereo. I hesitate to answer. Whenever I’ve eaten snails in the past, I’ve always been given a tiny fork or toothpick to dig the creatures from their shells, but I don’t see any tools like that here. I look at my waiter for help. “Just suck it, and it’ll come out,” he says. “But wait until it gets really hot.” Snails, or oc, are all the rage in Little Saigon. They come in all shapes and sizes. I like the little ones best, served in coconut curry, which is somewhat sweet when it comes to the table, so I prefer to add some chopped bird’s-eye chilies to give it some much-needed balance. 10130 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove; 714-636-2000. Closed Tuesdays.
Must order: black duck noodle soup. This is one of the best noodle soups known to mankind. The broth tastes subtly of star anise and a pinch of palm sugar. Springy egg noodles bounce between your teeth, encouraging you to smile as you chew. And that duck, oh my. The cook delivers all the food to your table herself. 14140 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove; 714-530-9228. Closed Tuesdays.
Must order: rare beef pho. Nothing brings out the claws faster than a debate about who makes the best pho. This is my favorite place for beef noodle soup with rare or raw beef. Unless you’re a competitive eater, you won’t be able to finish the whole bowl, but that’s OK. They’ll sell you a smaller bowl if you wish, but where’s the fun in that? The texture of the noodles, the clarity of the broth, the freshness of the raw beef, everything about this soup is excellent. 9240 Garden Grove Blvd., No. 19, Garden Grove; 714-537-9000.
Must order: oxtail pho. It’s the side order of oxtail, added to any bowl of pho, that’s most important here, and they often sell out by 2 p.m. on weekends, so you have to get there early and stand in one of the longest lines in Little Saigon. The oxtail is a massive bone with lots and lots of tender slow-cooked meat, more than enough to share. This place also makes the best Vietnamese coffee for miles. 9941 Hazard Ave., Garden Grove; 714-531-2490.
Must order: beef brisket pho. There’s a pho shop on every corner in Little Saigon, sometimes two or three. This spiffy modern cafe is the newest — and one of the best. The broth is pure and immensely satisfying. The soups come in a range of sizes, ranging from petite to enormous. The brisket is especially good here. 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove; 714-486-3207.
Must order: lemongrass beef. Much more than a lounge, Q1 is adored by Little Saigon’s ladies who lunch and the businessmen who drive fancy sports cars. The menu offers several variations of filet mignon, my favorite of which is stir-fried with garlic and lemongrass, with a fried egg served atop the rice. 15560 Brookhurst St., Westminster; 714-839-3886. 15560 Brookhurst St., Westminster; 714-839-3886.
Must order: goi bo and banh it ram. This is an all-around great restaurant for many things, but I’m stuck on the goi bo salad, which is a fantastic tangle of shaved filet mignon, stir-fried and tossed with a finely shredded banana blossoms, onion and sweet red peppers along with handfuls of mint, cilantro and sesame seeds. It’s light and refreshing, served with great little rice crackers that have the texture of chicharrones (fried pork rinds). Another standout here are the banh it ram, which are fried rice cakes topped with pork and shrimp dumplings. 15640 Brookhurst St., Westminster, 714-689-0555.
Must order: ginger chicken rice or bun bo Hue. Whenever I’m having a rough day, I always crave the chicken rice here. The chicken is boiled and pulled apart by hand, then served almost like a salad, tossed with herbs and raw onions, paired with ginger rice and a small bowl of steaming hot chicken broth. This is also one of the better spots for bun bo Hue, a hearty, spicy bowl of beef noodle soup amped with cubes of jelly made from beef blood, plus meatballs, pig shanks (or sometimes the trotters) and various innards. It’s not for wimps. 9950 Bolsa Ave., Suite B, Westminster, 714-531-2905. Closed Mondays.
Must order: Newport special lobster. Call up a bunch of friends and have them meet you here for Vietnamese/Chinese food. Admire the massive lobster tanks near the entrance, then order the 7-pound, house-special lobster. Round out the Lazy Susan with an extra-large order of yang chow fried rice and the spicy clams. Notice how quiet it suddenly gets after the lobster arrives. 10541 Bolsa Ave., Garden Grove, 714-554-3996.
Thach Che Hien Khanh
Must order: No. 3 che and banh da lon. There are several locations of this Vietnamese dessert shop, but I prefer the newest one at Brookhurst and Bolsa. Unlike the more crowded, older outpost across the street, this one actually has a place to sit and enjoy your dessert – just one table, though, so you’ll have to fight for it. Otherwise, it’s the same lineup of banh da lon (coconut and mung beans), sweet sticky rice, puddings and che as the other locations. 9854 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-839-8869. Closed Saturdays-Sundays.
Must order: vermicelli bowl with pork and shrimp. Flip through the menu until you find that section for vermicelli noodles, or bun, then choose the one that’s loaded with grilled pork, shrimp and fried spring rolls, all of which come piled into a large bowl. They’ll give you a smaller bowl filled with slightly sweet fish sauce; dump all of this into the noodles. The table is set with bottles of chili sauce and hoisin sauce; add some of each. Throw in a handful of fresh green herbs. There’s no right or wrong formula. Just keep tweaking it until it feels right to your individual taste buds. This is one of my favorite foods on a hot summer day. 9553 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-531-9540.
Vua Bun Bo Cali
Must order: Vua bun bo dac biet. The menu here is extremely short, and the items to which you’ll want to pay closest attention are merely just a few. Zero in on the bun bo. The popular noodle soup comes in various guises, including the familiar style of Huebut also a couple of minor variations, each with slightly different components. But then there’s the giant Vua bun bo, which throws everything into one big bowl. Get that one, and ask for a large marrow bone on the side. 9211 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 657-666-4618. Closed Tuesdays.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more travel inspiration and photos, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.