Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Song of the South

Oops! I was going to spend the weeks leading up to Tet (Lunar New Year) celebrating Vietnamese food, but since we had our annual Southern Blues Party on Saturday night, I feel that I must digress. For more than three years, my sister Julie, my cousin Jeanne, and I have been throwing themed dinner parties at Jeanne’s house—Jeanne is truly a hostess extraordinaire. We throw two to three a year, and themes have included: Greek, Latin, Italian No Pasta, French, and 60s Kitsch (I made Twinkie Tiramisu). But Southern Blues was so much fun the first time that it’s now a tradition.

This year we had about 30 people, old friends and new—as is always the case. Julie is STILL in London, so she missed out, and we missed her. We also had ridiculous amounts of food. Everyone is encouraged to bring a dish and some people brought up to three. We had fried chicken, spicy coleslaw, glazed ham, biscuits, corn bread, three different kinds of mac ‘n cheese, Natalie’s famous spinach Madeleine … I know there was more, but I’m still kind of dazed from all the eating and can’t think clearly. The one thing we missed out on was grits; when my friend Ann went to the grocery store to buy some, she was told there was a recall. Who knew grits could be recalled! Oh yes, there was also plenty of bourbon, including a marvelous apple spiced infusion courtesy of Jeanne.

I made two dishes: Pulled Pork & Pecan-Coated Catfish. Both were ridiculously easy. Enjoy!

Pulled Pork
(adapted from About.com)

This recipe was my excuse to try the new crockpot my parents bought me for Christmas. Works like a charm!


- 1/2 cup cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup chopped onion
- 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tsp Tabasco
- 3-4 lbs pork shoulder roast (it’s okay if it’s on the bone)
- 5-6 dashes liquid smoke
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp ground paprika
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 2 tsp ketchup


1) In a large non-metallic bowl, combine cider vinegar, chopped onion, Worcestershire sauce, and hot pepper sauce. Add the pork roast, cover, and marinate in refrigerator for up to 6 hours and as long as overnight. Turn occasionally to keep roast coated with marinade.

2) Remove the pork from the marinade, scraping the onion back into the marinade. Lightly pat the roast dry with paper towels. Pour the marinade into a slow cooker and add the Liquid Smoke. Place a slow cooker meat rack or ring of foil in the slow cooker.

3) Combine the sugar, salt, paprika, and pepper in a cup. Rub the pork roast with the seasoning mixture and place on the rack in crockpot.

4) Cover and cook on LOW for 7 to 9 hours, or until very tender. Transfer the pork to a cutting board; cover with foil to keep warm.

5) Skim the fat from the surface of the cooking liquid. Stir in the ketchup.

6) Using 2 forks, pull the pork apart into shreds. Return the pork to the crockpot and stir liquid through it. You may want to first drain out some of the liquid, if it looks like there’s too much. You can always add more later.

7) For potlucks, set the dish beside a place of biscuits or hamburger buns and let everybody go for it.

Serves up to 8.

Pecan Coated Catfish
(adapted from Teri’s Kitchen: teriskitchen.com)


- 4 catfish fillets, about 6 ounces each (I couldn’t get catfish and so used sole, which was excellent. You can also use halibut.)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3/4 cup pecans
- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 Tbsp butter, melted
- 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 Tbsp fresh dill weed
- 1 Tbsp fresh parsley
- Olive oil
- Lemon wedges


1) Preheat oven to 375° F. Butter or spray a 13x9x2-inch baking dish.

2) Place fish in dish; sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3) Grind the pecans in a food processor until finely chopped. Throw in the breadcrumbs and grind some more. Throw in the dill, parsley, and cheese, and grind even more. (Don’t even bother chopping the dill and parsley beforehand). Stir in the butter and mustard and mix until well combined.

4) Pat the crumbs onto the top of each fillet. Drizzle with olive oil (I didn’t, and it turned out nice and flaky).

5)Bake until fish is done, about 15 minutes. (I needed to bake a little longer than 15 minutes for fillets ¾ inch thick).

6) If desired, place under broiler for additional browning of crust. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.

Serves 4.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Southern California's Little Saigon

A few months ago, my friend Tiffany, who is the editor of Preferred Destinations, asked me to write an article about Little Saigon, a Vietnamese community located in Santa Ana, Westminster, and Garden Grove in Southern California. I'm not very good at article writing (as a failed attempt at a food article writing class with an editor at Bon Appetit can attest), but I wanted to share my Little Saigon with others, so I took the assignment. As part of my tribute to Tet, which will be on February 18 this year, I'm reprinting the article here, in a slightly edited form. If not a journalistic gem, it is a good introduction to some of the area's great restaurants and shops. Enjoy, and make sure to pick up a copy of Ann Le's The Little Saigon Cookbook to learn even more about the community.

Little Saigon
Having lived in Vietnam for four years, there are times when I am homesick for it in a way that nearly breaks my heart. I miss the communion of the people, the intimacy of the neighborhoods, the flavors of mint and chili in a bowl of steaming noodle soup shared with a friend. It is a country where neighbors look out for one another, shopkeepers know your stories, and restaurants serve as public living rooms.

Fortunately, I have Little Saigon.

Less than an hour's drive south of Los Angeles, this community of more than 200,000 Vietnamese was founded by refugees who settled here after the end of the war in 1975. “Restaurants and businesses here originally functioned as points of survival,” says Ann Le, author of The Little Saigon Cookbook. “They were born from a struggling immigrant community’s needs rather than a Chamber of Commerce P.R. campaign.”

What this means—and what makes Little Saigon one of the most exciting, if under-appreciated, destinations in Southern California—is authenticity. From the outside this may be just another unremarkable expanse of strip mall urban sprawl. But the moment I enter a candy store, herbalist shop, and pho café, I am back in Vietnam. Each time I eat Banh Cuon Dac Biet Tay Ho (steamed rice paper crepes filled with minced pork and served with shrimp tempera and pressed pork) at Tay Ho, I am transported back to the little street stall where I once ate this dish for breakfast at least three times a week. Every time I drop into Bao Hien Rong Vang for banh com (sweet rice cake made with coconut, vanilla, and mung beans), I feel as if I am back in Ho Chi Minh City, where a friend’s mother once bought these treats for me at a shop of the same name.

The best way to begin your explorations of Little Saigon is with the food, and as you sample various dishes, you are in essence sampling the diversity of Vietnam, which is made up of distinct culinary regions. Most visitors begin in Hanoi, with pho, the now ubiquitous noodle soup that originated in the north. Citing its freshness, Ann favors the beef pho at the whimsically named Pho Kimmy. Pho 79, which has a branch in the Asian Garden Mall, is also a popular choice with locals. Another northern favorite, and a dish I would eat every day if I could, is bun cha (delicately grilled pork served with rice vermicelli, lettuce, and herbs). Song Long offers a commendable version, Bun Cha Song Long, in an appealing Viet-Franco setting.

In central Vietnam, in the 1800s, the royal chefs of the former imperial city of Hue distilled the country’s already refined cuisine. At the charmingly accessible Quan Hy, you may sample some of the most popular results, including banh beo (steamed rice cakes with shredded shrimp) and bun bo (imperial noodle soup with beef and pork). For a more homespun take on these dishes, head to Huong Giang, but be forewarned that the staff speaks limited English, and as with many restaurants and shops in Little Saigon, credit cards are not accepted.

Both zealous carnivores and diehard herbivores will appreciate Vietnam’s diplomatic approach to food. At Anh Hong, which originated in Saigon in the 1950s, a traditional seven-course beef meal is served with a side of local color, as the predominantly male crowd gathers to talk, drink, and devour dishes such as beef tartare marinated in lemon juice, beef sausage wrapped in la lot leaves, and thin strips of beef simmered at the table in vinegar fondue. On the flip side, Vietnamese gastronomy, with its strong Buddhist influences, takes an equally visionary approach to vegetarian food. The array of soy-based “chicken,” “lobster,” “duck,” and even “kidney” at Au Lac is impressive. If you are feeling adventuresome on a Sunday, drop by the Chua Hue Quang pagoda around lunchtime. Take a peek at the spiritual side of life in Little Saigon, and then wander next door. Nosy but polite trespassers are often invited to share in one of the best vegetarian lunches in town. English is at a minimum, but the experience is one-of-a-kind.

Don’t want to be limited to a single dish, approach, or region? Variety is the spice of life at the Westerner-friendly Saigon Bistro, a favorite of Crystal Wadsworth, Executive Director of the Westminster Chamber of Commerce, or homey My Nguyen, serving the kind of inexpensive family-style dining Ann and so many of her peers were raised on. The swanky, French-influenced Favori is also a top choice, with a good wine list, a wide selection of approachable dishes, and notable specialties such as ca nuong mo banh (baked whole catfish, whiskered grimace and all!), which you transform into fresh spring rolls right at the table.


While food is inarguably Little Saigon’s starring attraction, the shopping scene, though small, is one of Southern California’s best-kept secrets. The Asian Garden Mall houses the largest jewelry market in Orange County. I had ventured through this impressive bazaar numerous times, but it is not until I explore the mosaic of glittering boutiques with the effervescent Kathy Buchoz, the mall’s property manager, do I understand that en masse they serve as a microcosm for the community’s story of struggling refugees making good on the American Dream. Available to lead group tours, (she can be reached through the Westminster Chamber of Commerce), Kathy is more than a manager. She is the reverential keeper of the histories of every person who has a store in the mall. No one is introduced without an accompanying background, which generally ends with a tale of good fortune: the success of his or her shop.

Our first stop is Tick Tock, one of the mall’s original tenants. Started by immigrant Tan Hong, it is now run by Tan’s son Viet, who studied the art of watch making in Switzerland before returning to Little Saigon to transform the mom and pop joint into a showroom worthy of South Coast Plaza. In many ways, Tick Tock and the other shops in the mall recall an old-fashioned, all-American ethos that has been usurped by the chain store mentality. Viet is visibly enthusiastic when he declares, “I am so proud to carry on my family’s business.” He explains that the lab is maintained right in the store, and all work is done by his father or himself. Of particular note for visitors are the terrific prices, especially since Tick Tock is an authorized dealer for every brand it carries, including Baume & Mercier, Tag Heuer, Ebel, Omega, Gucci, and Versace. Also of great value in the mall are handbags, gold, diamonds, and other precious gems. With five shops, the family-run Ngoc Quang Jewelry offers the widest high-end jewelry selection.

Asian Garden Mall is also fun to explore solely for the experience, beginning with its exterior walls, which display molded concrete artwork by an artist from Beijing. Marble statues of the gods of happiness, longevity, and prosperity welcome you at the front entrance, which brings you directly into the food court, where you can fortify yourself with wonton soup and a refreshing glass of sugar cane juice at Hoa Binh Fast Food. As you wander, highlights include orchids, lucky bamboo, jade, ginseng at the traditional Phuoc Loc Tho Herb & Tea, and even ao dais, the tunic and trouser combination worn by Vietnamese women on special occasions, which are sold at Thanh Trang Bridal Shop. Unfortunately, most regular clothes are too small for Western bodies.


Once I have eaten and shopped and usually eaten again, leaving Little Saigon takes me nearly an hour, because of the ritual that has developed over the course of my many visits. From the mall, I walk to Dong Phuong Tofu, bypassing the snacks in the front case for the fresh tofu and soymilk processed in the onsite factory. The shop meets the soy-based needs of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and I still get a thrill every time I purchase a block of still-warm tofu for a dollar, to take home and incorporate into that night’s dinner.

Next, I cross the street to Lee’s Sandwich Shop for the house specialty, a ca phe sua da (AKA: Lee’s Coffee). Starbuck’s Frappuccino has nothing on this condensed milk-based iced coffee when it comes to the jolt factor. Lee’s, which began in San Jose and now has more than thirty franchises, also specializes in banh mi, the Vietnamese version of a deli sandwich on a fresh baguette. Banh mi makes a terrific snack or light meal; you can also try it at Banh Mi Che Cali, a café favored by Ann for its homemade bread, mayonnaise and pâté.

From Lee’s I hop in my car and drive a few blocks to my final stop, the Vua Kho Bo candy shop in the T&K Supermarket Plaza. Since I don’t have a sweet tooth, I usually skip the candies for a few scoops of dried jackfruit for my sister and a bag of dried tamarind for myself. So far, I’m still avoiding the dried squid and crab. Armed with treats and my iced coffee, and growing ever more caffeinated by the minute, I head for home, comforted by the knowledge that whenever I long for the sights, sounds, and flavors of Vietnam, they can be found just a short drive away.
Getting Your Bearings:
The core of Little Saigon is located in a section bordered by Bolsa, Westminster, Magnolia, and Brookhurst Avenues. Most of the restaurants and shops listed in this article are located within these boundaries. A few exceptions lie just beyond on the main streets.
- Anh Hong: 10195 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, 714-537-5230
- Asian Garden Mall: 9200 Bolsa Ave., Westminster
- Au Lac: 16563 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, 714-418-0658
- Banh Mi Che Cali: 8948 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, 714-897-3927
- Bao Hien Rong Vang: 14092 Magnolia, Ste. 115, Westminster, 714-892-2205
- Chua Hue Quang Pagoda: 4918 W. Westminster Ave., Santa Ana, 714-530-9249
- Duong Phuong Tofu: 15022 Moran St., Westminster, 714-893-2022, ext. 206
- Favori: 3502 W. First St., Santa Ana, 714-531-6838
- Huong Giang: 14564 Brookhurst St, Garden Grove, 714-531-2464
- Lee’s Sandwich Shop: 9261 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, 714-901-5788
- My Nguyen: 14282 Brookhurst Ave., Garden Grove, 714-839-5541
- Pho Kimmy: 14932 Bushard St., Westminster, 714-775-1699
- Quan Hy: 9727 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, 714-775-7179
- Saigon Bistro: 15470 Magnolia St, Westminster, 714-895-2120
- Song Long: 9361 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 108, Westminster, 714-775-3724
- Tay Ho: 9629 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, 714-839-1389
- Vua Kho Bo: 9717 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, 714-775-7166
- Westminster Chamber of Commerce: 14491 Beach Blvd., Westminster, 714-898-9648
If you want to try cooking a Vietnamese dish at home, I recommend Clay Pot Fish. Yet another friend of mine just used my recipe and loved it.
photos by Julie Fay

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Celebrating Vietnamese Flavors

With the Year of the Pig due to arrive on February 18, I would like to spend the next month focusing on Vietnam, beginning with a recipe from The Little Saigon Cookbook, by Ann Le.

About two years ago, Ann came serendipitously into my life. I was hunkered down in Cook’s Library researching Communion, and she happened to be there buying a gift for a friend. Casual conversation over the merit of a few Vietnamese cookbooks led to a wonderful, constantly evolving, enriching friendship ... as well as partnership with my sister on Ann's book—Julie took the photographs.

Ann wrote The Little Saigon Cookbook out of respect for the Southern California immigrant community in which she was raised and a desire to preserve its culinary traditions for future generations. For this post, I asked her to choose a favorite recipe from the book. Despite this being a porcine new year, she selected the following chicken dish, which I enjoyed many times when I lived in Vietnam.

Traditional Shredded Chicken and Cabbage Salad (Goi Ga)

Goi ga, regarded as the coleslaw of South Vietnam, is a refreshingly sweet and tangy salad. The chopping and slicing steps to make it may seem laborious, but they’re necessary to let all the ingredients be more evenly coated by the dressing. Note that each part of the salad is dressed separately before the final tossing. There are a number of ways this salad can be expanded, such as by adding boiled shrimp and pork, more cucumber slices, shallots, or other cabbages (except red cabbage). Just make sure you have the dressing perfected—a balance of tangy, sweet, and salty flavors—as it is the clincher to creating the invigorating taste of goi ga. The fish sauce should not be overwhelming. Serve this salad at room temperature.


- 3 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 dried Thai bird chile, thinly sliced
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 5 Tbsp fish sauce
- ½ cup paper-thin slices yellow onion
- 1 head green cabbage (Savoy or Napa recommended)
- 2 medium carrots, peeled
- 2 chicken breasts (approximately 1 lb. total)
- 1 medium cucumber, peeled and julienned
- 3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- ½ cup finely chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander leaves
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves
- ½ cup crushed lightly salted peanuts


1. In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, chopped garlic, sliced chile, sugar, and fish sauce. Whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add the sliced onions and set aside.
2. Shred the cabbage and carrots with a mandoline into a large bowl. Pour half of the dressing over the vegetables and let them marinate for at least 15 minutes.
3. Boil the chicken breasts in salted water until fully cooked. Let cool, then shred into thin pieces by hand.
4. Add the chicken, cucumber, cilantro, and mint to the marinated cabbage and carrots. Add the rest of the dressing and toss. Let the salad sit for about 10 minutes before serving to allow the cabbage to wilt a bit.
5. In a skillet over high heat, toast the crushed peanuts. Add them to the top of the salad as a garnish just before serving.

(Serves 6)

Make sure to check out Ann’s new foodie website, LA Lunchbox (www.lalunchbox.com), debuting in March 2007.


photos by Julie Fay