Southern California is home to the largest population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. And Westminster and Garden Grove, which have the highest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the U.S., is where you’ll find the oldest Little Saigon, making Bolsa Avenue and its surroundings a destination for Vietnamese food.
It can be daunting for the uninitiated to figure out how and where to begin navigating the depths of the neighborhood’s trademark strip malls. We enlisted the expertise of Hieu Ho, a Vietnamese American who grew up in Orange County during the emergence of the Little Saigon we know today. We focused our food crawl on finding the best versions of classic Vietnamese favorites, which are detailed below:
Coffee (cà phê đá) — Lily’s Bakery
There are fewer caffeine fixes more satisfying than the ritual of stirring and sipping a Vietnamese coffee, typically a drip pour of medium roast with thick condensed milk at the bottom. At Lily’s Bakery, you’ll find an amped-up, especially delicious version: It’s an espresso pull with just one spoonful of whipped cream in addition to a house-made condensed milk. It’s so addictive, you’ll be tempted to order two, before dealing with the inevitable and jittery consequences later. Little Saigon Village, 10161 Bolsa Ave. No. 109b, Westminster, (714) 839-1099.
Rice cakes (bánh bèo) — Quán Hỷ
These soft, chewy steamed rice cakes, which translate to “water fern cake,” come in a series of small, individual saucers. While they are a street food in Vietnam, they can be found in most appetizer sections on menus all over Little Saigon. You’ll find a great version at Quán Hỷ, where soft, gelatinous sheets are topped with fried garlic and fried ground shrimp. Add some nước mắm pha (the fish sauce-based dipping sauce) on top, and cut the circular cake into halves with a spoon before popping one into your mouth. With myriad textures and flavors — sweet and sour, soft and crunchy — it’s an especially delicious way to start off your meal. 9727 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 775-7179.
Pork sausage spring rolls (nem nướng̣) — Brodard
The spring roll, or gỏi cuốn, has become the well-known accomplice to every steaming bowl of pho. And there’s nothing quite like the ones at Brodard, where the centerpiece of each is the savory, slightly sweet pork sausage known as nem nướng̣. Lengthwise cuts of the sausage are bound with chive stalks, cucumber spears, chopped Romaine and crushed, crunchy fried egg roll skin in translucent sheets of rice paper. Don’t forget the tangy dipping sauce, which you’ll probably want on all three bites it takes to devour each roll. Mall of Fortune, 9892 Westminster Ave. R, Garden Grove, (714) 530-1744.
Pho (phở) — Pho 79
This slow-simmered bowl of clear, flavorful broth, thin rice noodles, onion, beef cuts and its accompanying garnish plate of bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime and cilantro, is the most well-known Vietnamese dish in America. The stock owes its complexity to ginger, garlic, star anise, cinnamon and fish sauce, and you’ll find one of the best versions in Little Saigon at Pho 79. The Beef Special is known as Phở Đặc Biệt, served with tendon and tripe as well as steak cuts in your soup. You also can order the Phở Tái (with rare cooked beef) or Phở Chín (with well-cooked beef). 9941 W. Hazard Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2490.
Three Color Dessert (chè ba mầu) — Thach Chè Hiển Khánh
There’s nothing like sipping on chè, the Vietnamese sweet dessert soup, in the middle of the day. Chè ba mầu is the classic version of chè, a parfait-like layered dessert made with sweetened coconut milk, green jelly noodles, red azuki beans and yellow mung bean paste all stirred together for a chewy snack. The version at Thach Chè Hiển Khánh includes a base of fresh coconut milk and the addition of tapioca balls and water chestnuts. 9639 Bolsa Ave. Suite A, Westminster, (714) 839-8143.