Cruising the broad avenues of Little Saigon can be humbling. The other day, as I drove past an endless stream of pho noodle houses, Vietnamese fast-food takeouts, Chinese barbecues and banh mi sandwich shops, I suddenly realized that trying to take in the culinary pleasures of byways such as Bolsa or Westminster is, for one person, as inefficient as surfing the Internet at 1200 baud.
It may help to narrow your sights on a couple of worthwhile discoveries: Da Nang and Loan.
Da Nang, named for the city in central Vietnam, is a slow, cool, casual cafe tucked into a large strip mall on Bolsa Avenue. The interior has a waiting-room sterility, chiefly due to a spotless white tile floor and frictionless blue Formica table tops. Music is Vietnamese pop.
The cooking of central Vietnam is drier, more soulful and easily more exotic than that of the capital, Ho Chih Minh City.
Chinese influence in the former Saigon means lots of stir frying and spicing. Foods in the middle of the Vietnamese land mass are generally steamed, grilled or eaten raw, something Da Nang's owner, Jan Nguyen, explains to first-time visitors.
I love this food.
Take the salad called mit tron xuc banh trang, the menu's No. 34. It's based on green jackfruit--that is, the fruit's slightly unripe flesh, which turns white when fully ripe. The fruit has a pulpy yet firm texture, and a mildly medicinal aftertaste.
Da Nang's kitchen mixes it with chopped basil, crushed peanuts and minced cooked shrimp. You scoop the mixture onto crisped rice crepes flecked with black sesame.
The sign outside Da Nang's door advertises bun bo Hue, central Vietnam's most famous dish. A hot and spicy pork or beef noodle soup, it is a far cry from the more familiar pho.
Instead of rice noodles in a mild beef broth, these are thick wheat noodles in a ruddy soup stock pungent with hot chilies. Then there are the toppings, which include pork blood, pork shank or sliced beef tendon. A sprinkle of chopped mint and basil adds further dimension.
Perhaps the most popular dish at Da Nang is No. 26, banh uot thit nuong. Imagine a light Chinese egg roll filled with barbecued pork, julienned vegetables and penetrating herbs. Then picture the rolls with their skins steamed, rather than deep-fried.
Mi quang, mustard yellow noodles about the size and thickness of homemade linguine, are another specialty of Da Nang. The restaurant will give you a large bowlful, hiding stewed pork, whole shrimp, bean sprouts and a delicious gravy underneath.
Don't miss the wonderful fresh "lemonade" that's really a limeade, and the rich, sweet iced coffee. Come in the morning and you can start your day with a glass of nuoc dua tuoi, fresh coconut juice.
Da Nang is inexpensive. Dishes are $3.50 to $5.
Equally exotic, but wildly different, is Loan's at the edge of Little Saigon in Garden Grove.
What intrigues me most about Loan's--best described as a Vietnamese breakfast joint, sports bar and pub--is the variety of dishes coming out of the kitchen: a few generic but tasty rice plates, goat hot pot, alligator in curry sauce, various deer preparations, Vietnamese-style crab rolls, even beef tongue in Burgundy sauce.
I've stopped in here at various times of the day, and the restaurant is definitely chameleon-like. In the morning, you can have a filter coffee and eat one of the fluffiest ham omelets on the street, with a hot French roll brought in fresh from a local French bakery. (There are dozens of them in the neighborhood.)
One evening I took in Monday Night Football on one of the restaurant's TV screens, eating a plate of tom rang muoi, garlic broiled shrimps, and keeping an eye on the waitresses lining up frosted glasses at the bar. At lunch another day, I was served a satisfying, simple dish of com tam bi cha suon, steamed rice with a barbecued pork chop and a steamed cake of ground meat and egg.
During the evening, the crowd is more focused on eating. While young Vietnamese-American business types chat on cellular phones or unwind with entire bottles of Cognac and Schweppes tonic water, the kitchen sends out some serious dishes.
Lau de is a fabulously tender goat hot pot, which comes in two sizes: large ($14.99) or enormous ($21.99). Posted on the wall board are specials such as ca sau xao lan, alligator with curry spices. If you've never had gator, it's like a firmer, less stringy version of crab, rather neutral in flavor and a mirror for these musty spices.
Cha gio Vietnam is the ideal pub food, dense little bullets of minced crab meat, double wrapped in egg roll skin and fried to a golden crunch. In the company of sauteed pork chops and roast chicken fried rice, a dish like luoi bo nau ruou vang, beef tongue in Burgundy sauce, does seem a bit recherche. It is, however, one of the most tender and succulent tongue dishes I've ever had, good enough to make me forget about the tongue sandwich at Canter's for at least a season.
Loan's is inexpensive to moderate. Dishes on the regular menu are $2.99 to $6.99. The pub menu ranges from $5.99 to $21.99.
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* DA NANG
* 9607 Bolsa Ave., Westminster.
* (714) 839-3173.
* 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.
* Cash only.
* 10911 Westminster Blvd., Garden Grove.
* (714) 534-3776.
* 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily.
* MasterCard and Visa.