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


matt armendariz said...

I AM SO GLAD I FOUND THIS! I've been venturing from my home in Long Beach to Little Saigon (4 times over the past week), upset that I never thought of digging deeper into the community after all these years.

I'm so glad to see this posting! Thank you thank you thank you!

anni said...

Natch . . .now I'll have to extend my trip next month another week to take in this community. :-) Not too far from my accommodations in Redondo Beach.

Lovely post, Kim! Hope all is well so far in this new year.

Anni :-)

Da Pho'King Guy said...


I am using this comment as a means of trying to contact you, as your profile does not display your email address.

I have started a rather cheeky blog for bringing attention to Pho, and I have placed a link to this particular blog entry on my blog.

I can understand if you do not want to be associated with the "sense of humor" of my blog, so I will gladly remove the link to your post if you so desire.

Please let me know either way.



Adam said...

Great article! You've made me want to buy a plane ticket and check it out myself! I haven't had the pleasure of visiting Little Saigon, although I did make it to China Town in LA and was pleasantly surprised to see that much of the community there too is Vietnamese. If we only dig deeper into our cities we can often find an amazing treasury of culture preserved by the immigrants who have settled here.

Jessica said...

I think this is a lovely tour of Little Saigon. Thanks for the information!

Kim said...

Thanks, Jessica. Your comment prompted me to re-read my post, and now my mouth is watering ... I need to get down to Little Saigon for some bun cha soon!!

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