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.
Here are my 25 favorite things to eat in Little Saigon.