Visiting Little Saigon, unlike other designated ethnic areas, gives me the feeling that I'm in a place that lives up to its namesake. Short of a trip to the real Saigon, it is as authentic an experience that you will ever get, smack in the middle of the O.C.. It's an island made up mostly of people with black hair and brown eyes and names like Nguyen, Pham, Trung and Minh (and some guy named Dr. Phouck) within the homogenous racial mix of Southern California. You know this place is legit Southeast Asia style, as 90% of the cars in Little Saigon have, at the very least, one obvious dent or scratch. If you're looking for cheap imported goods, look no further than the Asian Garden Mall, full of all sorts of strange smells, cheap knockoffs, and stuff you can't find anywhere else. When you walk in a Vietnamese supermarket, you can see black patches where the linoleum has peeled off. If you order a catfish from the tank, the butcher will grab one by the tail and smash its head into the concrete, wrapping its still quivering body (now that's a fresh piece of fish!) in a pink sheet of butcher paper. And it smells of Southeast Asia: lychee, rotting detritus, urine, etc...
But the main reason to go to L.S. is for the food, namely the Pho Restaraunts.
For all of you wondering what type of sauce is in the green capped bottle in front of Justin, that is called Shiracha and is arguably as versatile a condiment as ketchup is. Now look at the bowl in the bottom of the frame. This is the infamous bowl of Pho (no. 10), the prime suspect for causing my bout of projectile vomiting and diarrhea on Christmas Eve. However, I like the pho so much that I plan on eating it again on my next visit. After all, whats a little projectile vomit and diarrhea now and again. A fair trade-off for eating great food, I say.
Pho is not a complicated dish, and that's one of the reasons why it tastes so good. Its a simple rice noodle soup with a light beef broth, some meat, and assorted vegetables and herbs. I have eaten pho in Japan, Santa Barbara, Seattle, and other random places, but the best pho I have eaten so far is in Little Saigon.
Pho should be eaten with an order of cha gio and a glass full Vietnamese style iced coffee.
If your cha gio arrive cold, with old vegetables and no fish sauce, you should be very worried. If they come still sputtering out steam with ample freshly washed vegetables and a bowl full of fish sauce, be prepared to cry (from burning your tongue AND from the sublime flavors that your olfactory system will eventually register after the pain fades away).
The egg rolls above are known as cha gio. The filling is usually seasoned pork and rice vermicelli. They taste great by themselves, but the taste awesome if you wrap them in a fresh leaf of lettuce, along with some Vietnamese pickled daikon and carrot slices, and dip them in the nuoc mam (badass stinky fish sauce- don't be scared!). Eat them right when they come out of the frier if possible, when they are still capable of causing third degree burns. Bite off a piece and use the lettuce to shield your tongue from the intense heat as you inhale and exhale rapidly in an attempt to cool down the morsel. Trust me on this. A Vietnamese meal would not be complete without a cup of Vietnamese coffee. The coffee comes dripping from a cheap metal aparatus, into a small mug holding a generous amount of condensed milk. By the time you are half-way finished with your meal, the coffee should be completely filtered and ready to pour into the ice-filled cup.. I love this coffee because it is as thick as a cappuccino, and creamy and sweet due to the condensed milk. Iced coffee is the only way to go, and the caffeine counter-balances the urge to siesta.
There are many other mysterious, often delicious foods to be eaten in Little Saigon. The sandwitches are cheap and kick major ass (picture a sub sandwitch with butter, pate, roasted pork, vietnamese pickled vegetables, jalapenos, and lettuce), the deserts look like they were taken from the set of Star Trek, and their take on French cuisine is truly refreshing.
So if you do end up coming to Orange County, don't wuss out and go to El Torito, Applebees, or P.F. Chang's after spending all of your time and money at Disneyland. Go to the beach instead and after that get your ass down to Little Saigon, experience an adrenaline rush from almost getting into an accident, and enjoy some truly interesting and delicious food!
As for pronouncing Vietnamese words, good luck. I just point at the pictures in the menu and ask for things politely in English. This may be unfounded, but I get the feeling that these dudes are more likely to spit in your food if they think that you are a prick. At least they're not sneaky about it, like the clowns over at El Torrito.