For the last several years, I have been obsessed with the Vietnamese snack known as nem nuong, charcoal-grilled pork most often eaten with herbs as a component of a rice-paper roll.
At some restaurants, such as Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa in Alhambra or Summer Roll in Rosemead, slender nem nuong patties are barbecued on skewers and served on a platter with marinated carrots, lettuce, a pile of Vietnamese herbs and a stack of crunchy, cigarette-thin egg rolls — you moisten a disk of rice paper in a bowl of warm water, assemble the ingredients and attempt to roll it up into a compact sort of burrito, which you then dip into a sweet dip made with garlic and fish sauce.
Nem nuong, a specialty of the central Vietnamese province Kanh Hoa, is a do-it-yourself production with a party feel to it, not unlike Korean barbecue. The people who make clumsy rolls are usually subject to good-natured ribbing. Nem nuong goes well with beer. And no matter where you are or who might be in the kitchen, the Vietnamese you happen to be dining with will always insist that their grandmothers make it better. You would be wise not to disagree.
But when the subject of nem nuong comes up in Los Angeles, the conversation sooner or later turns to Brodard, the enormous, teeming nem-nuong-plex behind the Mall of Fortune in Garden Grove, possibly the most popular restaurant in Orange County's Little Saigon. I have never waited less than an hour for a table at Brodard. Brodard's meaty, honeyed dipping sauce probably draws half of the customers on its own.
And when the subject of Brodard comes up, it isn't long before somebody starts talking about Brodard Chateau, which is exactly like Brodard except that it occupies a Victorian mansion that used to be home to the Pinnacle Peak steakhouse, the prices are about a third higher and you can actually reserve on OpenTable. Plus you can get some fancy dinner-house cooking, wild king salmon, skewered filet mignon or grilled tiger prawns, if you're so inclined. The idea of Brodard Chateau, of street food taken out of a street food context, is slightly controversial among the cheap-eats crowd.
In fact, Brodard Chateau may be the fanciest restaurant in Little Saigon, with subdued lighting, soft music and plush booths. There are paintings on the walls instead of travel posters, and there's even a full bar. If you've ever wondered what a Vietnamese mojito might taste like (hint: exactly like a non-Vietnamese mojito), Brodard Chateau might be for you. Most of the clientele seems to be Vietnamese, but there are far more non-Asians than you see at other restaurants in Little Saigon, and the menu has been written to de-emphasize the Vietnamese names of dishes — you will find grilled pork spring rolls when you're looking for nem nuong cuon; "shaken beef" before the sweet, spicy beef stir-fry bo luc lac; and mysterious "lunar cakes" before banh khot.
You should probably try the banh khot, by the way, crisp little cup-shaped pancakes made from a coconut-sweetened batter, each holding a single shrimp, ready to be wrapped in a scrap of lettuce leaf and dipped into garlicky fish sauce. It's much better than the restaurant's banh xeo, the familiar Vietnamese crepe made from a similar batter and wrapped around bean sprouts and chunks of pork belly, which tends to be limp and bland.
Brodard Chateau is nominally a central Vietnamese restaurant, and you can find interpretations of central-style dishes, notably the sautéed clams served with rice, sesame-studded rice crackers and shredded elephant-ear stem, a spongy, sauce-absorbing vegetable I'd never before seen. But there are also a lot of dishes from Vietnam's north. The Hanoi-style smoked pork noodles include both braised belly and grilled pork patties in a caramelized garlic sauce; the noodles and herbs are served on the side. The cha ca thang long, a famous Hanoi dish usually made with catfish, is reinterpreted here as sole fillets served on a superheated fajita platter with sautéed onions and handfuls of fresh dill.
And then there are the cuon, pre-rolled as if the proprietor didn't trust you not to disgrace the output of the chef: nem nuong, the tiny egg rolls, lettuce and a little mint tightly wrapped in moist rice paper, single chives protruding from each roll with mathematical precision, ready to dip and eat. There are rolls in which grilled shrimp cake replaces the pork, soft-shell crab rolls and roast duck rolled with its proper Chinese accompaniments. I like the cuon stuffed with sour, fermented beef, served with an extra-garlicky dipping sauce, but then again, I would.
Brodard Chateau is nem-nuong-centric to the point that, even if you have ordered a rack of lamb and a plate of the delicious fried sweet potatoes with shrimp, the waiter will stand patiently by the table until you tell him what kind of rolls you want. I'm not sure if anybody in the history of the restaurant has ever visited without getting at least one order of nem nuong, and he isn't about to let you become the first.
Vietnamese grilled pork skewers survive the trip to a Victorian mansion.
9100 Trask Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 899-8273, http://www.brodard.net
Appetizers, $6.95-$14.95; rolls, $4.50-$9.95; noodles and rice dishes, $7.95-$17.95; Brodard specials, $10.95-$28.95.
Open 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays to Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking.
Grilled pork spring rolls, grilled shrimp spring rolls, banh khot, bun cha Hanoi, sizzling sole.