Here we are at the Mall of Fortune, the vast strip mall that many people consider the heart of Vietnamese Garden Grove. There are sprawling noodle complexes, a crowded bakery and a seven-courses-of-beef restaurant that seems as large as a soccer field. Interested in bun cha Hanoi (charcoal-grilled pork patties with noodles)? You have your choice. Hidden in the back is Brodard, a nem nuong specialist where waits stretch to hours on weekends. And smack in the middle, marked by a flotilla of shade umbrellas, is Garlic & Chives by Kristin, a recently opened restaurant that is already one of the best dining rooms in Little Saigon.
You put your name down on the waiting list. You dart next door for a sea salt coffee from the bakery 85°C — you definitely have time. And when you are finally seated, maybe under the truck-tire-size garlic wreath or perhaps under a chandelier that looks as if it had been harvested from Siegfried and Roy's stage costumes, you will be confronted with a menu that will bewilder you no matter how many times you have dined in Little Saigon: lavishly illustrated and well translated but with the familiar-seeming dishes reconfigured in startling new ways.
Soon you will be eating strips of deep-fried salmon belly, which is crisp and meltingly delicious in ways you may not have anticipated; platters of grilled blood clams in their shells, showered with toasted bits of garlic; and nuggets of minced pork and sea snail that seem to have been deep-fried directly in the snail shells. You could get the kind of corn with melted cheese you've encountered after midnight in Koreatown, or you could get the kernels of sweet corn sauteed with garlic and handfuls of stinky dried shrimp. You would not be unhappy with garlic fries.
You begin to realize: Garlic & Chives by Kristin is a small-plates restaurant. It is the Vietnamese equivalent of a Korean pocha or a Japanese izakaya, only with a lot less beer. And those nuggets of toothpick lamb, saturated with garlic and tossed into a deep fryer until the meat sizzles and browns? The Sichuan-style toothpick lamb at Chengdu Taste is one of my favorite dishes in the San Gabriel Valley, and Chengdu Taste is widely credited with inventing it, but even there the meat is rarely so crisp or so succulent, the flavors of the marinade so concentrated or the chile-tinged sweetness quite so compelling. Welcome to the pantheon, toothpick lamb.
The concept of Asian American fusion gets tossed around a lot in Southern California, usually in reference to standard European dishes pumped up with Asian flavors, sometimes to Hong Kong-style coffee shops and sometimes to upscale restaurants where second-generation Asian chefs classically trained in French cuisine apply their technique to the flavors they grew up with. Bryant Ng's modern French-Vietnamese cooking at Cassia is a perfect example, and I like it a lot.
Less well-remarked, perhaps, is the fourth kind of Asian American cooking: Asian chefs looking not just at other Asian cuisines but also at American chefs looking at Asian cuisines. The new American style of small-plates service may owe a lot to Japanese izakaya traditions, but it is not quite izakaya. Wolfgang Puck may be responsible for more Beijing ducks than all the restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley put together, but his outlook is not Chinese.
But Garlic & Chives by Kristin is very Vietnamese, from the roasted peanuts and slivers of banana blossom in the delicious pomelo salad to the habit of rolling wispy, cigarette-size egg rolls with chunks of salmon belly in fat, herb-intensive rice-paper rolls; from the julienne of sweet beef jerky in the green papaya salad to the chewy curls of skin in the goat curry and its accompanying hot baguette.
The restaurant has a minor specialty of sticky rice, served in a smoking-hot cast iron skillet so that the bottom scorches and crisps and the rice itself congeals into something whose texture resembles a loosely rolled noodle. You can get this sticky rice with pork fluff and sweet sausage, an analogue to Hong Kong-style barbecue rice, or plain, with bowls of Vietnamese standards like roasted pork belly or catfish in caramel sauce to spoon over the top. Almost everybody gets the fried crab, not dissimilar from what you'd find at nearby Newport Seafood, and you'll probably get one too. It will be a bit overcooked, and the meat will be hard to pry from the shell. But it will be nearly buried beneath drifts of that fried, minced garlic. Fried garlic, especially here, can make up for a lot.
Garlic & Chives by Kristin
A Vietnamese small-plates restaurant in Garden Grove's Mall of Fortune does sticky rice, toothpick lamb, fried sea snail rolls — and garlic fries.
9892 Westminster Blvd. No. 311, Garden Grove, (714) 591-5196.
Appetizers $4-$7; salads $7-$10; larger dishes $7-$10; seafood $8-$10, more for crab or whole fish.
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking.
Toothpick lamb, pomelo salad, deep-fried salmon belly, fried sea snail rolls.
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