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.
Here are the 25 best things I’ve found to eat — and then some — in Little Saigon. All restaurants are open daily unless noted.
Garlic crab at Garlic & Chives: I like everything I’ve eaten at this spiffy little newcomer that opened in December, but the house specialty and best thing on the menu is the wok-fried crab, cooked with jalapeños, dried chilies and handfuls of garlic — more garlic than you can possibly imagine — but you won’t regret it. 9892 Westminster Blvd., No. 311, Garden Grove; 714-591-5196.
Bun rieu at Red Crab: Vietnamese country singer and heartthrob Duy Truong is a local celebrity in Little Saigon, but he is also an avid cook. Last year he opened a restaurant that, like so many others, draws inspiration not just from Vietnam but also New Orleans. It’s like Boiling Crab or Kicking Crab, but much smaller, more intimate and ultimately more fun. The crawfish and crab are great, but what’s even better is Truong’s bun rieu, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup made with a tomato-based broth and a hint of tamarind. You can get it loaded with fresh crab or tofu. 9211 Bolsa Ave., No. 120, Westminster; 714-894-4536.
Bun cha Hanoi at Tra House: Bun cha is a traditional street food from Hanoi, where vendors set up their makeshift charcoal grills in the middle of the sidewalks to cook pork patties and thin strips of fatty pork, which they mix together and serve in bowls of cold, sweet broth made with water, sugar, vinegar and fish sauce, plus a fistful of cold noodles and a pile of fresh herbs and lettuce. The version that most reminds me of Hanoi is the one I found at Tra House, a trendy steampunk-themed Vietnamese gastropub and tea house, where the portion is larger and more beautiful than anywhere else. 14291 N. Euclid St., Garden Grove; 714-554-0401, Website
Chicken pho at Hien Thanh: 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. 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., No. 108, Westminster; 714-887-9349.
Stir-fried beef with lemongrass and garlic at Q1 Tea Lounge: Opened a few months ago, Q1, which oddly has a drive-through, has come to be adored by Little Saigon’s ladies who lunch and businessmen who drive fancy sports cars. The kitchen’s talent goes much deeper than the restaurant’s “tea lounge” moniker might suggest. The menu offers several versions 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.
Imperial rolls at Vien Dong: Fried spring rolls, or imperial rolls, are one of the most basic staples of Vietnamese cuisine, and one of the first tastes most Westerners get to know. And while Vien Dong is perhaps best known for sizzling fish with dill and turmeric, what I really love here are the imperial rolls. They are big and substantial and, surprisingly, not very greasy. I could happily make a meal out of a single order of these, again and again. 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove; 714-531-8253.
Nem nuong cuon at Brodard: More than 200 diners at a time squeeze into Brodard, all ravenous, all here for the 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 me when I purposefully 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. Be prepared to wait in line for up to an hour if you come at peak dining hours. 9892 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove; 714-530-1744. Closed Tuesdays. Website
Chinese barbecue at BBQ One, Lien Hoa and New Duong Son: Chinese barbecue became an integral component in Vietnamese cooking a long, long time ago, and it’s a tradition that has thankfully not been lost in Little Saigon. The newest player is BBQ One, which opened this year next door to the legendary Lien Hoa and one block from the just as famous and always excellent New Duong Son. They all sell essentially the same things: barbecue duck, barbecue pork and soy sauce chicken. I bought samples of everything from all three places on the same day to compare, and it’s really hard to pick a winner. But I do love the idea of sitting down for a meal at BBQ One, whereas the others offer only takeout. BBQ One, 9299 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-898-0800. Lien Hoa BBQ, 9311 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-894-1085. New Duong Son BBQ, 9211 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-901-1600.
Banh beo chen at Hue Oi: Countless restaurants serve the diminutive rice-flour pancakes known as banh beo chen, 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. 16537 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley; 714-531-1305. Closed Tuesdays.
Banh mi bo kho at Le Croissant Dore: 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. Website
Shrimp on a stick at Rice Paper: This is Southeast Asian street food at its best, except your waiter here will give you way more napkins than you would ever get from a street vendor. And you’ll certainly need a stack. The shrimp are incredible, skewered with their heads, shells and tails intact, then basted and heavily charred on the grill. You’ll end up with sauce everywhere: covering your fingers, dribbled in your lap, smeared across your face, possibly even in your ears … but you’ll love every minute of it. 10561 Bolsa Ave., Garden Grove; 714-554-8889. Closed Tuesdays.
Vermicelli bowl with pork and shrimp at Thanh My: 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.
Newport special lobster at Tan Cang Newport Seafood: Call up a bunch of friends and have them meet you here. 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. Website
Shaved ice at Snow Monster: If you are older than, say, 40, you might feel out of place here on a Friday night when all the cool kids gather to gossip and flirt and eat shaved ice. If you’ve not had this stuff before, it helps to know that shaved ice tastes more like ice cream than, say, a snow cone or Slurpee. 9600 Bolsa Ave., Suite G, Westminster; 714-582-6023. Website
Banh mi at Lynda Sandwich: Banh mi sandwiches have become so ubiquitous that even Taco Bell’s parent company has jumped on the bandwagon. Everyone in Little Saigon has their favorite baguette stuffed with grilled pork or meatloaf, along with handfuls of pickled radish, fresh cucumber and jalapeño. Lots of fans swear by Banh Mi Che Cali, or the recently opened Westminster branch of Mr. Baguette. I find the former’s bread too tough, not crisp or crumbly enough, and I find the latter too bland. When you bite into a banh mi, you should always end up with crumbs in your lap. For my money, which is merely a few bucks, nobody in Little Saigon makes a better pork sandwich on a better, crisper French baguette than Lynda Sandwich. 15380 Beach Blvd., Suite B, Westminster; 714-898-5400.
Beef pho at Pho 45: Nothing brings out the claws faster than a debate about who makes the best pho. My favorite place for beef noodle soup is Pho 45. 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.
No. 3 che at Thach Che Hien Khanh: There are several locations of this Vietnamese dessert shop, but I prefer the newest one at the corner of Brookhurst Street and Bolsa Avenue. 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 don lon, sweet sticky rice, puddings and che as the other locations. 9854 Bolsa Ave., Westminster; 714-839-8869. Closed Saturdays-Sundays.
Bun bo Hue at Quan Vy Da: Bun bo Hue is typically a very hearty, spicy bowl of beef noodle soup amplified by cubes of jelly made from beef blood, plus meatballs, pig shanks (or sometimes the trotters) and various innards. It’s not for wimps. My go-to version of this is at Quan Vy Da, where the broth packs a spicier-than-average punch. It’s ready to eat, but for the handful of fresh herbs that should be thrown in at the very last minute. 9950 Bolsa Ave., Suite B, Westminster, 714-531-2905. Closed Mondays.
Vegan bun bo Hue at Nhan Duc Hanh: It’s important to repeat what I just said: Bun bo Hue is typically a very hearty, spicy bowl of beef noodle soup amped up with cubes of jelly made from beef blood, plus meatballs, pig shanks and various innards. So when I see this on the menu at a vegetarian — mostly vegan — restaurant that opened in December, I’m naturally skeptical. But then I taste it, and I’m blown away. It’s almost as good as the real thing. 8540 Westminster Blvd., Westminster; 714-225-5384.
Duck noodle soup at Phat Ky Mi Gia: I’m still about 15 years away from perfecting the art of dismantling the hindquarter of a duck using nothing but chopsticks and a plastic spoon, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying 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. Website
Garlic noodles with grilled prawns at Fusion 11: This is a lovely fine-dining restaurant with white tablecloths, professional service and a modern French-Vietnamese menu that ranges from traditional Southeast Asian street food to lamb chops and prime steaks. Whatever you do, don’t miss the garlic noodles with grilled prawns. These spaghetti noodles prove the brilliance of simplicity and the importance of cultural fusion in the history of Vietnamese cuisine. 14580 Brookhurst St., Westminster; 714-531-1428. Closed Tuesdays.
Snails in coconut curry at Oc & Lau: “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.”
Oc is the Vietnamese word for snail, and you can see by the restaurant’s name that snails are an important part of the menu here. 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.
Banh hoi at Bo De Tinh Tam Chay: Imagine the most intricate lace doily. Now imagine that it’s made from rice flour and is extremely delicious. It’s called banh hoi, and it’s a specialty of this popular vegetarian restaurant. It serves banh hoi different ways, but I suggest trying the version that’s wrapped around roasted bean curd, which you’ll dip into a vegan version of the popular condiment nuoc mam pha. 15352 Beach Blvd., Westminster; 714-891-4455.
Banh cuan at Banh Cuon Tay Ho #4: “It’s good, isn’t it?” I look around to see who just 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 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, 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.
Goi bo at Quan Hop: This is one of my all-time favorite salads: a tangled heap 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 very light and refreshing, served with great little rice crackers that have the texture of chicharrones (fried pork rinds). 15640 Brookhurst St., Westminster, 714-689-0555.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.