Westminster's Little Saigon is a packed landscape of cheap eats hiding among a thicket of shops, strip malls, and lanes. Nearly two years ago, chef Robert Danhi, the James Beard-nominated author of Southeast Asian Flavors, toured us through Thuan Phat Market, shortly before introducing us to today's mighty pocket of eateries congregated around a strip mall on the city's well-trodden Bolsa Avenue. If you're not headed straight to Che Cali for a killer banh mi or stopping at one of the many Lee's locations for an avocado smoothie, try the following places to get a bite of golden Northern Vietnamese dishes, freshly-made loaves of tofu that redefine the curd, and if you must, a place for that intimidating Southeast Asian delicacy known as balut.
Ha Noi focuses on recipes from Northern Vietnam, with all of the crispy golden fried things that that entails. A brightly lit, medium-sized café buzzes with families and groups on the weekends, while a small station where an employee grinds stalks of sugarcane into fresh, citrus-tinged juice usually occupies the attention of newcomers. Specialties here include ch cá thang long, a generous serving of lightly fried, funky, tumeric-spiced, dill-laden catfish, bun cha Hanoi, the Northern preparation of vermicelli that sees pork cuts and pork belly, wiry noodles, cured carrots, and fresh perilla laid on a dish for you to build your own bowl with fish sauce, bun thang laid over an arc bridge of soft eggs, and the must-have banh tom co ngu, a Hanoi favorite of crispy shrimp and fried yams melded together in a frittery mass of fries to be picked apart or rolled up into lettuce leaf doobies that get plunged into a clear orange sauce. Don't leave without trying to sensational deep-fried spring rolls, another piece of golden goodness that's pleasing to the eye and tongue and goes great with a fizzy lychee soda.
Hanoi, 9082 Bolsa Ave. Westminster. 714-901-8108.
We'll eat anything. Anything (wink). Well, that is, with two exceptions so far. We were too skeeved by the surrounding squalor to take anyone up on the snake blood in Taipei and we don't do balut. What is balut? THIS is balut, muhahahahaha! A popular street food snack in Southeast Asia (especially The Phillipines, where distinguished pateros prepare the dish), balut is typically a duck egg that, unlike your eggs at home, has been fertilized for a series of days and then cooked before the little bird ever sees the light. It's likely to have developing bones, thick veins, and even possibly a feather or two, and for many others, it's a big favorite. Maybe some day we'll get the stones to step up. Until then, you can find a fairly mature balut being prepared in different ways at this tiny storefront.
Balut Pateros, 15075 Weststate St. Westminster. 714-890-1321.
To some people, eating tofu is probably about as scary as eating balut is to us. We've all seen the bright white, silky, watery chunks that swim in a generic miso, but at Đông Phương Tofu, a whole new world opens up to the uninitiated (read: us before encountering chef Danhi). Here the tofu is more likely to resemble bread at a bakery, coming out in big hot loaves, sometimes studded with lemongrass or chilis, made into a pudding, or knife-cut into golden fried wedges for sale, along with a nice-sized selection of snack foods made from tofu and soy beans. These guys supply a good number of the area's grocery stores with their product, but here it is as fresh as it can possibly be, having just emerged from the heat, while warm, newly-squeezed soy milk also lines the fridges. The place gives you an entirely different perception of soy. With a milky flavor and firm but giving structure, it's easy to see how this kind of comforting tofu became a staple for a large part of the world. At Dong Phuong, tofu becomes an art-form.
Đông Phương Tofu, 15084 Weststate St. Westminster. 714-895-3565.