"When I worked in banking it was important to me to have a job that required wearing a suit and tie," says Brian Huynh, whose eponymous northern Vietnamese-style restaurant sits in the center of Little Saigon. "But I loved working in my spare time at Ha-Noi, my aunt and uncle's place, where I learned to cook. Eventually I realized the kitchen is where I belong."
That makes sense after you taste Huynh's bun cha ha noi, northern Vietnam's favorite char-grilled street food combo of garlic-doused sliced pork topped with silver-dollar-size minced pork patties. The meats emerge smoky and earthy, splashed with a seasoned broth. The crusty char is delicious eaten in a crisp lettuce wrap or tossed in a bowl with skinny rice noodles and pungent herbs.
Or when you try Huynh's Hanoi fried spring roll. Misnamed, the roll is a pillow-like square filled with shredded crabmeat, juicy ground pork, mushroom and bean thread. Cut into quadrants, its crystalline rice paper envelope crackles into shards as you bite into the sweet-savory interior.
These are a mere prelude to the regional specialties Huynh serves in its cheery minimalist dining room. Heavy, clean-lined wood tables, broad picture windows and sunny yellow walls adorned with decorative Vietnamese souvenir art create a comfortable, if not exotic, light-filled space. It's a find not the least because northern Vietnamese cooking is so uncommon in America.
Immigration from the region has been far less prevalent than it has from the south. Even pho, originally the north's signature noodle soup, got a southern twist — an extra shot of spice, additional garnishes and variety meats — after migrating northerners brought it south, and then here to Southern California.
Most Vietnamese food lovers easily discern the more flamboyant southern flavorings from northern ones. Northern kitchens like this one have kept a strong Chinese influence emphasizing simple, direct flavors, while maintaining the lightness and clarity of taste that's so typically Vietnamese.
With its flash-fried stir-fries and homey simmered stews, the offerings on the menu page labeled "Family Dinner" give a representative glimpse of the style: The melting tenderness of ca kho to, red-cooked catfish simmered in mahogany-colored caramelized fish sauce, is positively soul stirring. The slowly simmered pork ribs drenched in garlic- and shallot-infused fish sauce then crisped over high heat and a braised mackerel with galangal (a kind of ginger) are uniquely northern.
And so is the use of fresh dill. A moist glistening slab of boned catfish over a bed of onions on a super-heated iron platter, cha ca thang long, comes smothered in the herb. The pungent green is de rigueur in canh chua ca thi la, a clear eye-opening, tart fish soup swimming with fresh vegetables. The Hanoi catfish and rice vermicelli soup is yet another dill extravaganza.
The kitchen shows a certain fondness for chicken giblet dishes. And for the curious, there's a chewy escargot and pork soup brightly tinged with turmeric.
An absolutely must-try appetizer, banh tom co ngu — sometimes known as shrimp doughnuts — comes as three golden heaps of matchstick-cut sweet potatoes fried in tempura-style bundles and embedded with crispy whole shrimp – stupendous with a few bites of amaranth leaf (rau tio) from the salad plate on the table.
LOCATION: 9500 Bolsa Ave., No. B, Westminster, (714) 531-7379
PRICES: Appetizers, $2.95 to $6.95; entrees, $6.25 to $9.50.
DETAILS: Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Tuesday. Closed Wednesday. No alcohol. Cash only. Lot and street parking.