Revelers bring their appetites to O.C. celebration of Lunar New Year

Celena Ngo, left, with son Kaycee Nguyen and mother Thanh Tran at the annual Tet Festival in Orange County.
(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)

Thousands of foodies are indulging their taste buds this weekend at the annual Tet Festival at the Orange County Fairgrounds, packed with rows of culinary delights.

The three-day festival, which began Friday, is touted as one of California’s largest celebrations of the Lunar New Year. Organizers expect about 30,000 people to attend this year.

On Saturday, couples and families streamed through the festival’s temple-like entrance, lured by the intoxicating aroma of more than 30 food booths.


Smoky grilled squid scented the air, while a group of youngsters sipped lychee juice and munched on pandal leaf waffles. There were carnival games, good-natured singing contests and spin-the-wheel games. Prizes included mugs and soybean milk.

But the food, of course, was the main attraction. So much to choose from: egg rolls fresh from the frying pan or fertilized duck eggs, covered in basil and a squeeze of lemon?

“We close shop, come here for more money, more flavor, more fun,” said vendor Lam Nguyen, a 20-year festival veteran.

It takes three weeks to shop and assemble all the pieces needed for his annual booth venture. It earns him nearly $25,000, said Nguyen, who pays a $1,500 entrance fee.

At his booth, Nguyen and his crew of 10 kept busy chopping, dicing and slicing, while morning customers asked for the first of the estimated 5,000 barbecued kebabs he expects to sell for $3 apiece by Sunday night’s closing.

Fish sauce-marinated meats rank as one of his most popular items. But topping the list are crispy rice cakes for $7 each. His eatery’s specialty is rice noodles, but no noodles can be found at his booth or any other booth on the grounds because “it’s too complicated. We focus on finger foods, some delicious street food,” he said.


The competition among vendors is fierce.

“There’s so much competition to get in that people used to camp out the night before” registration opens, “just like those Black Friday events,” said Billy Le, an organizing member of the Union of the Vietnamese Student Assns. of Southern California, which sponsors the festival.

“This year, we sold out the very first day,” he said. “Merchants were calling us from all over because they know the dynamics of this event, but we try to limit the number of booths for quality.”

The Pho Burger stand marked its first appearance at the festival this year. Private chef Jeff Tafoya, who did a stint as a line cook at the famed Nobu Japanese restaurant, and his wife, Cecilia Doan, created the culinary standout: a four-ounce beef patty with seasoned salt and a secret sauce, topped with herbs, jalapeno and fried rice noodles, wrapped in a brioche bun.

“We were on the vendor waiting list. Luckily, someone pulled out and here we are,” Tafoya said, flipping dozens of $8 burgers. “Everyone told us this is the place to be — and look around. It’s so tempting.”

Nearby, Hao and Dianne Trinh took their passion for healthy living and launched Nam Gourmet, a line of healthy Vietnamese food and sauces with no MSG, preservatives or artificial flavors.

“We love going to the festival where you could be in Vietnam without knowing it,” Hao Trinh joked as he turned over rows of shrimp skewers, soaked in barbecue sauce. The sauce proved popular and several customers came back for seconds.

Meanwhile, festival-goers arrived with empty stomachs, eager to indulge.

“We already had the cream puffs, iced coffee, filet mignon skewers, steamed buns and here’s my sugar cane juice,” said Jane Powell, half of a power-eating couple with her partner Bill Miller, who takes out his wallet and counts out $120 for their food adventure.

“We try to do small increments rather than the whole meal,” Powell said. “That way we can enjoy more and more.”

Miller has been a regular at these Tet celebrations since 1993.

“It’s crazy, this food selection,” Miller said. “But I’m a trained eater. I go to all fairs.”

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