A Vietnamese Venture in Southern California
Every time my (Vietnamese) boyfriend travels to Orange County for work, he makes me jealous by sending me photos of the amazing food he’s eating.
I pointed out that there’s a Little Saigon a few blocks away from my house, but he insists, “It’s not the same. The food’s better in OC.”
So we decided to add on an extra day after our Borrego Springs getaway to eat as much delicious Vietnamese food as we could in Orange County’s Little Saigon.
It Began Innocently Enough…
Boyfriend had told me about a dish called broken rice, or Cơm tấm. (Sorry; WordPress is doing funky things with the accent marks, so they’re incorrect). The dish is called broken rice because — duh — the rice grains are broken. On top of the rice are half a dozen different delights: bits of pork, shrimp and tofu cake, shrimp skewer, and egg cake. I didn’t know where to start first! The entire medley makes for a mouth-pleasing wonder.
A Brief Shopping Break
I couldn’t believe I ate the entire plate of broken rice. But it was so amazing, I couldn’t help myself.
To make room in our stomachs for dessert (or so we thought), we walked around the T & K Food Market, an Asian grocery store. Now, if you’ve read any of my blog posts, you know I love to go to the grocery store when I travel. It’s a great way to see a place through a lens we all can relate to: food.
I drooled over still-warm homemade tofu blocks. Gagged at durian (if you smell it, you know why). Picked up a Vietnamese coffee maker and espresso beans.
Here’s a tip: beyond all the ethnic delicacies, Asian grocery stores can be a great place to get affordable seafood. I was sad that I couldn’t pick any up, given that I wouldn’t be home for a day, but plan to check out some stores near me.
And Now, for Dessert…or Not
Next, we headed to Thạch Chè Hiển Khánh, Boyfriend’s favorite place for desserts. If you’re unfamiliar with Vietnamese desserts (the way I was), know that they’re big on jellylike substances, coconut, and sweet rice balls. Not your typical Western breaded cakes and cookies.
I told him to get whatever he liked, then proceeded to act like a kid in a…dessert store.
“Ooh! What’s that?”
“Oh! Can I get one of those?”
“Mmm. That looks good.”
We left with our arms filled with an assortment that, for the most part, we wouldn’t get around to eating. Too much good stuff. But I did enjoy the Com Ruou, or fermented rice balls in their own delicious ricey liquor.
We also stopped at Bambu, a drink shop specializing in chè, or home-made beverages, dessert drinks, and puddings. We each ordered drinks filled with avocado, beans, pandan jelly, and lychee. Definitely different than Starbucks.
A Sunset Stroll
After returning to the hotel room and deciding we were too stuffed to nap, we drove out to watch the sunset in Huntington Beach. I don’t care how many ocean sunsets I see, they never get old!
We also headed down to the pier, watched a lively drum circle, then shivered our way down the lengthy pier for a night stroll.
Finally, I could believe that it was possible for me to eat again.
Want a Little Garlic with That?
The Boyfriend wanted to have dinner at Garlic and Chives, since it’s been well-reviewed by local press and Yelpers alike. Now, I’m not normally one to wait an hour to eat at a restaurant, but after reading the many reviews, I decided it was worthwhile. We put our name on the list, then meandered through the shopping center next door.
Finally, it was our turn to enter the restaurant filled with the delightful aroma of garlic. We shared fried wings dipped in a sweet, spicy, and, of course, garlicky sauce, as well as garlic shrimp on noodles and hot pot with salmon underbelly in a sweet sauce. Ohhh. My belly aches just remembering how good it all was.
A Breakfast Like No Other
Though I swore over and over that I’d never eat again, in the morning, I was ready to go. We decided to forego the crappy hotel continental breakfast and go Vietnamese style, naturally. He recommended the restaurant Banh Cuon Thay Ho, where we shared the special, a rice dish covered in ham, onions, and a shrimp cake. I also ordered a big bowl of soup…which I packed to go because there was no way I needed more food at that point.
I also ordered a Vietnamese coffee. If you’ve never had it, be warned: it packs both a sugar punch and a caffeine pow. Not for the faint of heart. But so good.
We wandered through another shopping mall and grocery store, but by then, my stomach had laid down the law. No more food would be consumed. We ordered Bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich you might know, with pickled veggies on the side so we could eat it when we got home.
I took photos of beautiful French-style cakes and pastries, but didn’t have it in me to sample. I looked at exotic fruits, but couldn’t partake. My eating function was broken.
Or was it?
We had one final stop at Roasting Water, a tiny hipsterish beverage place with fun mugs for sale on all the walls. The surprise Boyfriend had saved was the fact that our drinks (for me, a tea lemonade) came in a beautifully designed glass bottle. They change the designs, he told me, and lots of people try to collect them all.
I did eat again, but I was never the same after my Vietnamese Venture. I didn’t know it was possible to eat so much in so short a time. But my eyes were open to a whole world of Vietnamese cuisine that I had known nothing about before.
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