Those of you with occasion to see The Times' Orange County Edition may be aware that I also write about restaurants in that area.
In my many years reviewing there, I have always enjoyed the dozens of small Vietnamese restaurants in and around Westminster's Little Saigon. Now I am happy to report that accomplished Vietnamese cuisine has surfaced in the Valley. It's about time.
Cafe Orient in Chatsworth is a boxy mall storefront with white Formica tables and powder blue walls. Because it is so basic in appearance, the serious, highly sophisticated cooking comes as a bit of a jolt. Cafe Orient is more than just the Valley's best Vietnamese restaurant. It qualifies as a major discovery.
Many of the best dishes, such as calamari salad, nem nuong, and lemon grass chicken, are found on the extensive menu. A handful of worthy specials are posted on paper notices taped to the walls near the tables. Whether you order from the menu or try the specials, you can hardly go wrong.
The best lunch dish--hands down--is the familiar pho dac biet, a wispy rice-noodle soup topped with beef tendon, beef brisket and rare, thinly sliced flank steak, plus such fragrant leafy herbs as cilantro and mint.
You can also have the soup with bo vien, spongy little Vietnamese meatballs with a persistently garlicky aftertaste. The portions are huge, probably too large for one person. An extra 50 cents buys an even bigger bowlful, enough to make a hearty meal for three or four.
What makes this pho remarkable is not the oodles of noodles but a delicious beefy broth that is simmered for hours in a marrow-enriched stockpot. What makes it unusual is the spicing--fennel seed, star anise and clove--which give the broth an irresistibly complex finish.
Pho isn't this kitchen's only culinary tour de force. Goi muc, calamari salad, another terrific choice, is a piquant mix of lettuce, crisply fried shredded onion, lime juice, crushed peanuts and sublimely tender pieces of steamed calamari--perhaps the most tender I have ever tasted.
Cha gio, Vietnamese egg rolls, are especially good. Six densely packed cylinders of crab, minced pork and rice noodles are deep-fried to a golden brown and served with a lightly sweet dipping sauce and a platter of mint and cilantro leaves.
Nem nuong, tiny grilled sausages wrapped in rice flour crepes with noodles and herbs, are delicious with the restaurant's intense nuoc mam, the famous Vietnamese fish sauce. When they are available, grab an order of banh cong, wonderful spongy deep-fried shrimp cakes made from flavorful Vietnamese shrimp paste.
I've had a handful of entrees at Cafe Orient, and all but a couple were glorious. One of the specials is stir-fried cubed beef with Chinese long beans, but the description doesn't say that the beef is tenderloin, how perfectly the vegetables are cooked or anything about the dish's fragrant garlic and black bean sauce.
Lemon grass chicken, delicious with fluffy, steamed rice, is mostly white meat stir-fried with a finely minced lemon grass, green chili-and-garlic mixture until the individual pieces of chicken are lightly coated with the aromatic paste.
Sometimes there is a simple roasted Cornish game hen, falling-off-the-bone tender and served with a thick crushed-peanut sauce. I don't really care for the jade shrimp, plump shrimp stir-fried with green peppers, onions, overly pungent spices and a little lime juice. The shrimp are well-prepared, but the strong spices clash with their delicate taste.
Cafe Orient, 20527 Devonshire St., Chatsworth. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sunday. Parking in lot. No alcohol. Cash only. Dinner for two, $14-$22. Suggested dishes: cha gio, $3.95; nem nuong, $5.50; calamari salad, $5.50; lemon grass chicken, $5.95; beef with long beans, $8.50. (818) 486-1221.