Elle's Vietnamese friend, Kimme, has advised us that when looking for a Vietnamese restaurant, choose one that has a particular specialty rather than one that serves a bit of everything.
As we were searching the Internet for a Vietnamese restaurant with a specific focus, we were intrigued to discover Com Tam Tran Quy Cap, a broken rice BBQ bistro. There are quite a few places serving pho (rice noodle soup) in our area, but few that feature broken rice.
Actually, the concept of broken rice (com tam) was new to us but it is exactly what it sounds like, rice that has been broken in processing. It was originally poor people's food as it was cheap, but there are aficionados who prefer it because they say it has a nuttier flavor and a slightly stickier texture.
Traditionally, the rice is a bed for barbecued shrimp and/or meats in a variety of combinations, with an additional choice of pork skin, shrimp cake, egg roll, egg cake, Vietnamese sausage or pickled pork.
We thought we would begin our meal on familiar ground with Vietnamese spring rolls, but these did not taste like any we had had before. They were better.
Usually these shrimp, lettuce, cellophane noodle, rice paper wrapped rolls are mild and boring. They get all of their flavor from the accompanying peanut dipping sauce.
Clearly made to order, Tran Quy Cap's were bright with fresh cucumber, cilantro, lettuce and shrimp. What was new to the mix were crunchy bits of fried rice paper that gave the rolls a new dimension. The peanut sauce was also especially tasty.
For our next course, we boldly ordered Bin Rieu Dac Biet, a new dish advertised on a chalkboard, which our very helpful, very sweet and very patient waitress, Dung, said was a new soup with tomato, rice noodles, fried tofu and shrimp paste.
The Vietnamese do have a way with broth and this was a nice one with a subtle sweetness from tomato. A whole, cooked, peeled tomato had been set in the center of the bowl. Floating in the soup were several little meaty pork bones that were fun to chew on and gave the soup depth of flavor.
From the long list of broken rice combination dishes, we chose one that included shrimp cake, barbecued pork and egg roll. We found the bed of broken rice to be rather uninteresting as it tasted like plain white rice.
However, everything else was great. The shrimp cake was a savory, finely ground mixture of tofu and shrimp wrapped with bean curd skin, then deep-fried and sliced. We ordered an extra one, not realizing how big it would be and then sadly couldn't finish all of it.
The pork was thinly sliced and glazed with a subtly sweet barbecue sauce. The meat was tender and flavorful. The egg rolls were quite different from the Chinese style. They were stuffed with fine mixture of pork and vegetables, too finely minced to identify.
But whatever was in there, it tasted really good, especially in combination with its crunchy wrapper and we ate more of them than we should have. They were addictive.
Another item, new to us, was a Vietnamese version of a frittata called an egg cake. If it doesn't come with your broken rice combo, it is one of the many items you can order separately. Don't miss it; for only a buck you get a lovely wedge of tender omelet, flecked with barbecued pork.
Typical of most Asian restaurants is the lack of tempting desserts, no exception here. They offer Thai fruit cocktail, dried longan fruit in syrup and red beans in coconut milk. For free, they serve you a light gelatin in thin syrup with an artificial flavor.
We get excited when we find a dish that we have never tasted before, especially when it turns out to be mouthwateringly delicious and we found quite a few at Com Tam Tran Quy Cap. In addition, the prices allow you to compose a feast.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Com Tam Tran Quy Cap
Where: 16175 Harbor Blvd., Fountain Valley
When: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday through Saturday
Appetizers: $3.50 to $8.95
Entrées: $6.25 to $14.95
No alcoholic beverages
Information: (714) 418-1333 comtamtranquycap.net