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Food and Drinks

How Orange County’s Little Saigon creative chefs revolutionised Vietnamese food

A new generation of Vietnamese Americans are proud of their heritage but say their food is an improvement on the original, but the bigger portions and sedentary lifestyle in the US may not be so healthy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 7:25pm

Since its inception in the years following the Vietnam war, the near 200,000 strong Vietnamese enclave known as Little Saigon has become an indomitable force, remoulding Southern California’s Orange County in its own image, especially when it comes to food.

Today, this community – the largest group of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam – is one of the most dynamic culinary destinations in the country, home to flavours that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

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First- and second-generation immigrants run restaurants serving the best traditional regional Vietnamese cooking anywhere in the world. But, increasingly, it is a new generation of creative, internationally-minded chefs who are turning out the most exciting dishes, even rehabilitating that one-time culinary dirty word: fusion.

Though, as is often the case, the older generation of traditionalists and the young rebel cooks do not always see eye-to-eye, one thing that most Vietnamese residents of Little Saigon agree on is that the food made in their adopted home is better than anything being served in Vietnam itself.

“I just got back from Vietnam and here is so much better than the food there,” says chef Kristen Nguyen, the founder of local hotspot Garlic and Chives. “There’s just no way they can be up to par with us.”

Vietnam cannot compete with California’s unmatched bounty of fresh produce, or its residents’ comparatively deep pockets. In the kitchen, the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs are bringing a more global, modern sensibility to their food, while in the dining room young people are proud of their Vietnamese heritage, eagerly supporting new restaurants and new modes of cooking, and literally putting their money where their mouths are.

That means celebrating their birthdays at places like Oc and Lau, the neighbourhood snail (oc) specialists, who have an almost supernatural way of coaxing delicious homey flavours out of bivalves and gastropods. On weekdays, those same diners might crowd around small tables in traditional restaurants like Pho 45, or Com Tam Thuan Kieu for plates of com tam: broken rice served with egg and assorted meats.

When the weekend comes, they cheerfully queue up outside Garlic and Chives for a chance to sample Nguyen’s fried salmon belly strips, which owe more to Tokyo, Baja and the chef’s fertile imagination than anywhere in Vietnam; or get dressed up for a night of high-concept cocktails and small plates at modernist-theatrical Anqi By House of An.

Leo Linh Doan is from of the more recent waves of immigrants to Orange County. He came from Vietnam in 2006 when he was almost 21 years old. Now, with his mother, he runs Ha Noi Corner in Garden Grove – one of the most authentic Hanoi-style restaurants in the country.

“I have to say, in terms of food, now is the time for young people in the community.” Doan says. “Younger people are more willing to try new food, either authentic or fusion, while their parents love to find the more authentic places for the same old taste that they still remember from Vietnam.”

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Nguyen, whose restaurant has been a trailblazer, says the change in the area’s restaurants is obvious. “A lot of the younger generation here have started to go to culinary school and they’re into high-end cuisine. A lot of younger people are starting restaurants and I think it’s very exciting. Everywhere, I see them bringing a more modern touch to Vietnamese flavours.”

In a sign of another seismic generational shift, rather than encouraging her own children to be doctors or lawyers, Nguyen is hoping they go to culinary school. “I’m trying to get my own two kids to go to The Culinary Institute of America, and then to take Garlic and Chives to the next level.”

Like many of the area’s residents who came to America from Vietnam in the last quarter of the 20th century, Nguyen learned to cook from her parents – in this case, her father – out of necessity, lending a hand to help raise her seven brothers and sisters. She attended culinary school in California before dropping out, preferring an education as eclectic as the neighbourhood where she lives, and travelled the world from Korea and Hong Kong to Thailand, taking professional cooking classes everywhere she went.

Her restaurant is knowingly global, and designed to serve the needs of today’s community, not to kowtow to the past or notions of authenticity.

“I have two kids and we struggled every time we went to restaurants to eat. My husband loves Asian food and my kids love American food,” she says. “So, I started thinking that it would be nice if I opened a restaurant that would be good for our generation, their generation, and the elders. Over the next 16 years, I started putting together a business plan.”

The menu Nguyen ultimately designed reflects her globetrotting education with her creative interpretations of Thai salads, Korean chicken wings, Hong Kong-style noodles and Japanese sashimi.

Fusion is ultimately the only word to describe the dishes at Garlic and Chives and increasingly, in Little Saigon overall. Fusion may be a word that has fallen out of favour in contemporary kitchens, but any foreboding that it might inspire will be dispelled the moment you taste the food.

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This is not fusion by design but fusion by DNA, the kind of flavours that could only be forged in places like Southern California, combining ingredients and techniques from across the Asian diaspora, Latin America, traditional American comfort food, fast food and European continental cooking. The cuisine might be modern, but the flavour combinations are as old as Orange Country itself.

It’s not just American innovations that are making Little Saigon’s food so thrilling. Immigration from Vietnam is surging and the recent arrivals are more affluent and plugged in to contemporary Vietnamese culture than ever before. “There are more and more immigrants coming to the US daily,” says Doan, “and they bring with them the most updated trends from Vietnam.

Sadly, Little Saigon’s culture of eating out is also starting to bear less seemly fruit: diabetes is on the rise, as is heart disease.

Tricia Nguyen is the CEO of Southland Integrated Services, a clinic that has been serving the community in Little Saigon since 1979, and like most everyone in this part of town, she is a self-described foodie.

“Food is a central part of our culture. Food is comfort. Even if you go to meetings, you’ve got to have food. That’s what makes it a gathering and that’s how people become close, when they’re sharing something to eat. But at the same time, food is the central cause of a lot of our problems. Our cuisine is based on carbs: the rice, the noodles.”

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She says, “Vietnamese cuisine in Vietnam may be healthy, but over here we live a very sedentary lifestyle” and adds that the portions here are also much larger than anything traditionally served.

“When I went to Vietnam we ordered pho and it came in this little dinky bowl. Before we even finished my husband asked for three more! Plus, in Vietnam, they walk a lot. The Vietnamese in Vietnam all seem skinny, while over here in our community there is a lot of obesity.”

And while Little Saigon is undoubtedly a success story, the community still faces the same challenges of many immigrant communities: large populations of underserved and “invisible” people suffering the indignity and practical consequences of their undocumented immigration statuses in a country whose rhetoric and legislation is increasingly unfriendly toward foreigners of all types.

“In the last year with Trump,” Tricia Nguyen says, “we have a lot of people who are discriminating.

Before they were too afraid to come out, but now they feel more comfortable saying things like ‘You’re a chink’. I don’t see it first hand, but I hear it from my community. At the health centre, we do see that people don’t want to come in for their screenings any more because they think if we see they’re undocumented we would report them even though we never would.”

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Still, for most of the Vietnamese population in Orange County the future is bright. The budding restaurateurs we spoke to said the biggest challenge they face is not discrimination but competition.

“New food joints open almost daily. Boba [bubble tea] and dessert stores pop up everywhere,” says Doan. “They are competing with each other so hard.” Today, new restaurants in Little Saigon have a nearly 90 per cent failure rate.

“In the future, the Vietnamese population here will get much bigger and the area will get way more crowded,” Doan says. But for the residents of Little Saigon, whatever strain the new arrivals will cause pales in comparison to the bounty that they bring with them: “soon, we will have almost everything they have in Vietnam, and we won’t feel homesick any more.”

Where to eat in Little Saigon

Oc and Lau Restaurant

10130 Garden Grove Boulevard, Garden Grove, tel: +1 714 636 2000

Hanoi Corner

8516 Garden Grove Boulevard, Garden Grove, tel: +1 714 867 6665, gochanoicorner.com

Pho 45

9240 West Garden Grove Blvd #19, Garden Grove, tel: +1 714 537 9000

Garlic and Chive

9892 Westminster Boulevard #311, Garden Grove, tel: +1 714 591 5196

Banh Cuon Tay Ho 4

9822 Bolsa Avenue, #101H, Westminster, tel: +1 714 531 5171

Com Tam Thuan Kieu

14282 Brookhurst Street, Garden Grove, tel: +1 714 531 4852

Quán Hy Restaurant

9727 Bolsa Avenue, Westminster, tel: +1 714 775 7179