5i Indochine Cuisine – Culver City, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

We are proud to live in our beloved City of Angels, surrounded by amazing food from cuisines the world over. But despite the many ethnic enclaves that make up the Westside, it is darn near impossible to find good Vietnamese food here. Martin hails from the San Gabriel Valley and I was born and raised in Orange County, so those 24-hour pho restaurants with kitschy names just don’t do it for us. That is, until we found 5i. At first glance, the menu seemed a bit scattered with Singaporean noodles, har gow and shu mai dim sum dumplings, and pad thai. But after paging through, we noticed that the bulk of the menu was made of familiar dishes that encompass more than just the infamous beef noodle soup that everyone thinks of. For example…

Tau Hu Ky (Crispy Shrimp Patty)

Tau Hu Ky (Crispy Shrimp Patty)

SO GOOD. More on this later. 5i Indochine Cuisine just opened earlier this year. The restaurant is a tiny hole in the wall nestled in a Culver City strip mall, right between a karaoke bar and a dive bar. Fear not — once you slide into a parking space and navigate around the unsavory characters loitering about, entering 5i is like stepping into another world. A trendy-looking, IKEA-decorated world.

The Decor

The Decor

Our server quickly seated us and brought us the menus. While perusing our options, we overheard that they were giving a discount to the police officers sitting next to us as a small token of appreciation for the work they do. I thought it was a nice gesture. The expectations continued to rise when she came over to check in on us and discovered that we could communicate in Vietnamese. That definitely swayed me toward the Bún / Cơm (vermicelli rice noodles and rice plates, respectively) pages of the menu.

Plate of Herbs for Pho

Plate of Herbs for Pho

Martin had a huge craving for phở so he decided to go with that. Sadly, his favorite type of meat, the tripe (sách), was not available (it is on the menu but it seems they had run out that day). Instead, he selected the phở tái with rare slices of beef. First, of course, comes the plate of herbs — rau quê (Thai basil), bean sprouts, lime wedges, and jalapeno slices.

Pho Tai (beef noodle soup with rare steak slices)

Pho Tai (beef noodle soup with rare steak slices)

Despite the initial disappointment at the lack of tripe, Martin seemed to enjoy his steaming bowl of pho. The broth was actually pretty impressive in its fragrance and flavor. Not quite Pho 79, but definitely better than the others I’ve had in LA. Lots of beefy flavor, the aroma of star anise and charred onion, and plenty of fresh scallions and white onion. I would go into the nitty gritty details, but I only got one bite and a few sips of broth.

Charbroiled Pork with Vermicelli (Bún Thit Nướng)

Charbroiled Pork with Vermicelli (Bún Thit Nướng)

I am usually a fiend for noodle soup, but I could not pass up the opportunity for a big bowl of vermicelli so I got the bun thit nuong. Rice noodles, chopped lettuce, cucumber strips, and fresh bean sprouts form a refreshing bed for the hot-off-the-grill (or flat-top?) slices of juicy, smoky pork. Pour on the fish sauce and dig in. It’s like a warm salad, in the very best way imaginable. One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, especially in the summertime… or this unusually warm winter.

Crispy Shrimp Patty (Tau Hu Ky)

Crispy Shrimp Patty (Tau Hu Ky)

I had a feeling I would be satisfied with my bowl of bún, but as I was closing up the menu, my eyes took notice of an item on the appetizers list. Crispy shrimp patty — ground shrimp patty wrapped in a crispy tofu skin. Wait… isn’t that tau hu ky (tàu hũ ky)? I had to ask our server but she confirmed my suspicion. It’s one of my all-time favorite add-ons for cold Vietnamese dishes, so I ordered a plate of these as well. These were hot hot hot, fresh from the fryer, and the layers of bean curd crunched satisfyingly with each bite. The center was well-seasoned minced shrimp, which was only accentuated by the sweet & sour dipping sauce (a bit unconventional, but still delicious). The tau hu ky at 5i rivaled that of our established favorites in the SGV and OC. Spectacular!

If you’re in or near the Westside and looking for pho (or to expand your Vietnamese food eating repertoire beyond it), cruise on over to 5i Indochine Cuisine. We can’t speak for the rest of the menu, but the Vietnamese dishes are pretty darn stellar.

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Check out 5i Indochine Cuisine: 5ipho.net

5407 Sepulveda Blvd
Culver City, CA 90230

See their Yelp reviews here – though to be honest, I disagree with many of the reviews. To address a few: 5i is NOT Asian fusion. Most of the menu features Vietnamese dishes, so don’t order the Thai food and expect it to outdo “authentic” places. Yes, the parking lot can be a bit shady but that’s no reason to penalize the restaurant. And lastly, sparse and curt customer service is just how it is at many Asian restaurants… don’t come here expecting Michelin star treatment (although when we went, we found the staff to be pretty friendly).

Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup (Mien Ga)

Main Dishes, Recipes

Baby it’s cold outside… and that means, it’s the season for soup! We’ve posted a chicken noodle soup on this blog before, but nothing quite hits the spot like Vietnamese miến gà, a glass noodle chicken soup just like my parents used to make for me when I was sick. Martin’s mom did the same for him and I’ll bet many Asian families have a similar recipe in their repertoire. It’s warm, comforting, and beautiful in its simplicity. You could even increase the noodle-to-soup ratio to create the traditional Hawaiian dish Chicken Long Rice. Since we’re starting with just the basics here, the possibilities are endless.

Vietnamese Chicken and Glass Noodle Soup (Miến Gà)

Vietnamese Chicken and Glass Noodle Soup (Miến Gà)

NomNomCat Tip #1: What I refer to as bean thread noodles (or bún tàu) are also translated as “cellophane noodles” or “glass noodles.” These are thin strands often dried and packaged in individual bundles about the size of a generous handful. I cook them directly in the chicken stock, but you can boil them separately in water instead. The latter technique will make it easier to store leftovers (if you can avoid it, do not store the noodles together with the soup or they will quickly soak up all the moisture and expand). Note that these bean thread noodles (made with mung bean starch) are not to be confused with hủ tiếu dai, another Vietnamese glass noodle that is chewier and thicker in diameter, nor with bún, a rice vermicelli that turns bright white when cooked.

Bean Thread Noodles (I know the package says "vermicelli" on it -- how confusing!)

Bun Tau / Bean Thread Noodles (I know the package says “vermicelli” on it — how confusing!)

NomNomCat Tip #2: Anyone who has been to a Vietnamese restaurant may have noticed that there is a vast difference between fish sauce straight from the bottle (nước mắm) and fish sauce that has been “prepared” so to speak (nước chấm, literally “dipping sauce”). I use nuoc mam for seasoning the soup, but for the shredded chicken, the more subtle and balanced nuoc cham is in order. It’s easy to prepare and keeps well in an airtight jar in the refrigerator. Here’s an approximation of my dad’s recipe: In a small sauce pan, bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Stir in a scant 1/4 cup of sugar. When completely dissolved, add 1 cup of cold water to cool the solution down. Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of nuoc mam (full strength fish sauce), and 1 teaspoon of white vinegar. Distilled will work fine but if you can get your hands on the Filipino cane vinegar (sukang maasim), Datu Puti is my dad’s brand of choice. Taste and adjust as needed. It should be a balance of sweet, salty, and tart. Pour into a jar and add a few thick slices of fresh garlic. The flavors develop better as it “ages” but you can also use right away if needed.

Okay, now that all that is squared away, let’s go back to basics with miến gà.

Ingredients:

4 chicken thighs, bone-in and skin-on

1 medium onion, charred

1.5 to 2 quarts water

2 tablespoons fish sauce (nước mắm)

Salt & pepper, to taste

3 50g bundles of bean thread noodles (bún tàu)

3 to 4 tablespoons prepared fish sauce (nước chấm, recipe above)

1 lime

* Optional: about 2 inches of fresh ginger, peeled and charred (I omitted it here since I did not have any on hand, but it would have added an extra oomph to the broth’s complexity)

Brown the Chicken

Brown the Chicken

In a large pot (I think mine is a 5 quart stock pot), brown the chicken thighs (sprinkled with salt and pepper) skin side down on high heat to render the fat.

Charred Onion on the Stovetop

Charred Onion on the Stovetop

Meanwhile, char the onion. To do this, you’ll need three things: a peeled onion, a burner on your (gas not electric) stove, and a pair of metal tongs. Oh and a bit of courage. Turn on the burner to high heat. Hold the peeled onion, gripping firmly with the tongs. Lower the onion as close to the burner as you can stand it, letting the flames envelope the outer layers. Rotate the angle to evenly toast up the onion. Some patches may bubble up and pop — that’s where the courage comes into play. After I browned the exposed areas, I lay the onion onto a cutting board and re-position the tongs to char the hard-to-reach portion.

Chicken Stock - The Beginning

Chicken Stock – The Beginning

Toss into the pot with the chicken. Pour in about 1.5 to 2 quarts of water. I’ve read that for a clear, proper stock, you are supposed to start with cold water. However, I am often short on time and so I will heat the water in a kettle first to expedite bringing the whole pot to a boil. I don’t mind cloudy chicken broth. ;)

Fish Sauce -- the "secret" ingredient

Fish Sauce — the “secret” ingredient

Season with a few good shakes of fish sauce, about 2 tablespoons. Let simmer for about 45 minutes to one hour or until the chicken has cooked through and the broth is fatty and flavorful.

Shredding the Chicken (they just came out of boiling water so don't grab barehanded like I did)

Shredding the Chicken (they just came out of boiling water so don’t grab barehanded like I did)

Remove the chicken to a plate and shred. It’s quite hot so I used a fork and knife.

Seasoning the Chicken

Seasoning the Chicken

After all the chicken is shredded into bite-sized bits, I help it out a bit flavor-wise with a generous drizzle of prepared fish sauce (nuoc cham) and squeeze of fresh lime juice.

Cook the Glass Noodles

Cook the Glass Noodles

Meanwhile, turn off the heat and add the bean thread noodles to the broth (or to a separate pot of boiling water, if desired). The bundles will expand and soften within minutes.

For each portion, start with noodles and chicken

For each portion, start with noodles and chicken

To serve, grab a bowl. build a nest of noodles, pile on the shredded chicken, and ladle in the broth.

Ladle in the broth and serve!

Ladle in the broth and serve!

Serve with a wedge of lime and, if you like a spicy kick, add a dollop of sambal oelek (chili garlic paste). This will yield about 4 servings. Enjoy!

UPDATE: Exciting news!

I am going through and uploading PRINTABLE versions of our recipes for your viewing and printing convenience. We love to post step-by-step photos along with our recipes, but we know that this makes for cumbersome print jobs when it comes to bringing a copy of the recipe into the kitchen for reference. For this mien ga recipe, please click on this link or the BRAND NEW BUTTON below. For our recipe archive (a work in progress), click here. Scroll down to the very bottom of the site, click on “Print Page,” and when prompted, either save as a PDF to your computer or send the print job directly to your printer. Easy peasy!

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Vietnamese-Style Stuffed Tomatoes (Ca Chua Nhoi Thit)

Main Dishes, Recipes

Stuffed tomatoes (cà chua nhồi thịt) is one of Martin’s favorite home-cooked dishes. His mom used to make for him when he was a kid, and it’s a dish that really takes him back to simpler times. So although I don’t particularly crave it, I was definitely motivated to learn how to make it. No Vietnamese mother writes down her recipes and every Vietnamese mother has her own recipe taught to her by her mother and so forth. But between Martin’s mom and my mom, we were able to pull together a hearty meal that’s easy enough to prepare on a weeknight but that also freezes well to keep for later.

Vietnamese Stuffed Tomatoes

Vietnamese Stuffed Tomatoes

At home when my mom prepares this for my dad (also a big fan), she includes bean thread noodles (bún tàu) and reconstituted dried wood-ear fungus (nấm mèo). Traditionally, the filling is made with ground pork, but we like the extra heartiness that a simple ground beef stuffing offers (and sadly, it is a bit difficult for us to acquire bun tau and nam meo here on the West Side). We also love our stuffed tomatoes extra saucy, hence the many tomatoes.

Ingredients:

Ingredients:

4-5 ripe tomatoes (round ones, not roma)

1/2 lb ground beef (80-20 is a good fat ratio)

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce or seasoning sauce x 2

1/2 to 1 teaspoon garlic salt x 2

1/2 teaspoon black pepper x 2

1 teaspoon sugar (see below)

1/2 sweet onion, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 to 2 cloves of garlic, minced

Preparing the Tomatoes

Preparing the Tomatoes

Prep the tomatoes, starting with the pretty halves for stuffing first. For the prettiest stuffed tomatoes, I use only the “bottoms” of each of the 4 tomatoes. Cut across the tomato (not down through the stem) leaving a little more than half for the bottom side.

Re-purposing a One-Trick Pony (Grapefruit Spoons)

Re-purposing a One-Trick Pony (Grapefruit Spoons)

Use a spoon (or even better, a serrated grapefruit spoon) to hollow out the tomato middles; toss these into a small saucepan. Set the ready-to-stuff halves aside.

Chopped Tomatoes for the Sauce

Chopped Tomatoes for the Sauce

Dice the remaining parts of the tomato (and any additional whole ones you plan to use) into rough chunks – skins, seeds, and all – and add to the saucepan. Mix in 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper (adjust to taste). Cook down and simmer on medium to medium-high heat until the tomatoes fall apart. Taste; if too acidic, add about 1 teaspoon of white granulated sugar.

Seasoning the Ground Beef

Seasoning the Ground Beef

In a small bowl, season the ground beef with the other “set” of the seasonings above – 1/2 to 1 teaspoon garlic salt, 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper (this is a good opportunity to use the pre-ground, packaged pepper if you have it sitting around). Obviously it’s not recommended that you taste the raw beef (unless you ground the meat yourself) so try judging the flavor based on smell. Yes, I’m suggesting that you sniff the bowl. If you would like to use onions in your stuffing, mix them in now. We have made this both with and without and they are equally delicious.

Stuffing Time!

Stuffing Time!

Retrieve the pretty tomato halves and stuff away. The 4 tomatoes should use up most if not all of the mixture. Err on the side of over-stuffing, as the meat will shrink a bit as it cooks and you don’t want your lovely stuffing to fall right out of the tomato! If you have extra meat, just roll them into meatballs and let them join the party. (Sometimes we will prepare a full 1 lb package of ground beef for the same number of tomatoes just to have extra meatballs – be sure to double the amount of seasoning to accommodate!)

Sear the Stuffed Tomatoes, Meat Side Down

Sear the Stuffed Tomatoes, Meat Side Down

In a frying pan, heat the oil and saute the garlic until it just starts to brown. Add your stuffed tomatoes meat-side-down (and meatballs, if preparing) and get a nice sear going. Be sure to rotate the meatballs periodically to get an even sear on all sides.

Seared Tomatoes

Seared Tomatoes

You’ll want to let this go until the bottoms are browned and seared and the meat part feels like it’s firming up. At this point, you could flip them so the tomato side touches the pan.

The Cooked-Down Tomato Sauce

The Cooked-Down Tomato Sauce

Back to your sauce – are the tomatoes all lovely and cooked down? Good. If my tomatoes are a bit bland or acidic, I might mix in a bit of tomato paste to help it along at this point.

Handy-Dandy Immersion Blender

Handy-Dandy Immersion Blender

The easiest route to make this sauce more “saucy” is to take an immersion blender and let it whir through the sauce until it’s smooth and thick. Alternatively you could smash the tomatoes with the back of a spoon and fish out any stray skins that float around.

The Sauce

The Sauce

Pour the sauce into the pan with the tomatoes. Continue to cook for another 10 minutes or so to let the flavors meld and to ensure that the beef stuffing has cooked through. Serve over a steaming bowl of white jasmine rice.

Simmer Simmer

Simmer Simmer

Serves 4 (we like to make this for a weeknight meal so we’ll each have a portion for dinner and leftovers for next day’s lunch!)

For anyone wondering, this is my mom’s more traditional version with ground pork, ground shrimp, bean thread noodles, and wood-ear fungus in the stuffing:

More Traditional Style of Ca Chua Nhoi Thit

More Traditional Style of Ca Chua Nhoi Thit

How ever you decide to prepare stuffed tomatoes, we know it will be a delicious and comforting bowl to warm your heart on a cold winter’s night. The blended sauce was the brainchild of Martin and his mom, established through a phone conversation one evening when I was working late and Martin wanted to surprise me with dinner. He’s quite proud of it and as he should be — it’s velvety and packed with flavor, perfect for mixing into white rice and shoveling down by the spoonful. Enjoy!

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Vietnamese Spring Rolls (Goi Cuon)

Main Dishes, Recipes

Gỏi cuốn, often translated as spring rolls, summer rolls, or salad rolls, are handheld rice paper wraps filled with vegetables, herbs, and goodies. Martin particularly enjoys nem nuong cuon a la Brodard (we get at least a dozen every time we visit the OC) but I don’t discriminate – I love ALL goi cuon with just about any filling. Prepackaged or DIY, spring rolls are the perfect summer food since they are light, refreshing, and easily customizable. We recently came into some fresh cucumbers and perilla leaves from a friend’s garden, so a fresh batch of goi cuon for dinner is in order.

Goi cuon (spring rolls)

Goi cuon (spring rolls)

I’ll be honest, my rolls at home are often very simple with minimal filling — for no reason other than I’m too lazy to purchase a variety of vegetables and be held responsible for using them before they go bad. Traditional goi cuon are often filled with boiled shrimp, pork slices, lettuce, vermicelli rice noodles (bún), and mint. Optional add-ins include julienned cucumber, grated carrots, and bean sprouts. As we mentioned earlier, some places roll up strips of grilled pork patties called nem nuong and Brodard in particular substitutes crispy fried wonton & scallion rolls for the vermicelli. The sauces vary as well, from fish sauce based to peanut butter & hoisin.

The Fixings

The Fixings

NomNomCat Tips for Ingredients:

1. Rice Paper (Bánh Tráng): Not all packages of rice paper are created equal! Depending on the brand you purchase, the paper may be too thin, too thick, or just right. Some are slightly salted and some are completely bland. Some even have slivers of bamboo from the drying racks (they’re not dangerous; just pick them out if you see them). I’ve noticed rice paper at regular ol’ neighborhood supermarkets (Ralphs, VONS, etc.) in the “International” section, but of course you could find more brands and size options at an Asian grocery store. My favorite is the one with the rose (bông hồng) on the center and the double parrot (hai con két) symbol on the left. Regardless of the brand, be sure to get the kind that’s sold in round clear plastic packages to avoid the disappointment of broken sheets of rice paper common to the bagged kind.

Mint

Mint

2. Mint (Rau): These are optional but highly recommended. There are so many different kinds of mint, but my favorite for spring rolls are spearmint (rau húng lủi), spicy Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), Thai basil (rau quế), and perilla (tía tô). Shiso leaves, which were gifted to us, are a variety of perilla that is all green, but the Vietnamese tía tô is usually purple on one side and green on the other. Luckily, they share a similar fragrance, so for the purposes of this spring roll, they are interchangeable. If you’re having friends over to roll their own spring rolls, it would be nice to put out a smorgasbord of mint for sampling and experimenting. Questions? Check out this awesome guide (that is, until we have time to create our own)!

Ingredients:

Protein:

– Shrimp, deveined, peeled, and cleaned, about 2-3 per roll

– Pork, boiled and sliced

1 10.5 ounce package vermicelli rice noodles

Assortment of veggies:

– Lettuce (1 head of romaine or green lettuce)

– Carrots, grated

– Bean sprouts, cleaned with the roots picked off

– Cucumbers, julienned (you can leave the skins on)

Assortment of mint (spearmint, Vietnamese coriander, Thai basil, perilla, etc.)

1/4 cup hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter

Optional: sambal oelek (chili paste)

Rice paper

Hot (but not boiling) water

Boil the shrimp in salted water until the flesh just turns opaque, about 1-3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the shrimp and shock them in a bowl of ice water. Drain and set aside.

Shocking the Shrimp

Shocking the Shrimp

I was at Mitsuwa, a Japanese grocery store, and found these delectable slices of chashu pork. Instead of a steaming bowl of ramen, however, these slices were fated for something much more healthy. If you are using your own pork, simply boil in water until cooked through, let cool, and cut into thin slices.

Prepared Chashu Pork Slices

Prepared Chashu Pork Slices

Cook the vermicelli according to package instructions. For thin noodles, about 2-3 minutes in boiling water should suffice. Strain and rinse with cool water. Set aside.

A package of our favorite brand of vermicelli from Lan Vang

A package of our favorite brand of vermicelli – Lan Vang

Prepare the vegetables and arrange on a nice platter, if serving DIY style. If you plan to roll them all at once, just set up your mise en place.

Veggies for rolling

Veggies for rolling

Rinse the mint thoroughly in cool water. I like to fill a plastic bowl with water, gently push the leaves down a few times, rinse, and repeat about 3 times total. Shake onto sheets of paper towel to dry.

Drying the Mints

Drying the Mints

Next, prepare the sauce. Believe it or not, I had frequent requests from family to prepare this sauce when I was kid – in retrospect, it must have been my first signature dish.

Sauce Ingredients

Sauce Ingredients

In a small saucepan on medium-low, heat the hoisin sauce, peanut butter, and about 2-3 tablespoons of water. Stir constantly so the peanut butter does not burn.

Yum, peanut butter

Yum, peanut butter

Cook for about 2-3 minutes or until the sauce has warmed up enough to whisk together well and the consistency is to your liking. Add more water for a thinner sauce; I ended up needing about 5 tablespoons. Too sweet? Add another tablespoon of hoisin sauce. Remove from heat.

The Sauce

The Sauce

All set? Now it’s time to ROLL!

Fill a large bowl with hot water. Our tap heats up to near-boiling, but you’ll want a warm (but SAFE) temperature since you may be submerging your hands. Dip a sheet of rice paper in the warm water and rotate to moisten evenly. Lay onto a dinner plate and let sit for 30 seconds. The water will soften the paper into a malleable wrapper.

Arrange the vegetables, leafy ones first, along the bottom of the circle, approximately 1-2 inches from the edge. Leave room on the sides to tuck in the ends.

Step 1: leafy greens first

Step 1: leafy greens first

Top the leafy greens with vermicelli and the other vegetables.

Step 2: vermicelli and other vegetables

Step 2: vermicelli and other vegetables

Fold over the left and right sides so that they overlap the filling.

Step 3: fold the sides over

Step 3: fold the sides over

Fold up from the bottom and roll over once.

Step 4: roll up from the bottom

Step 4: roll up from the bottom

Arrange the shrimp on the rice paper.

Step 5: arrange the shrimp

Step 5: arrange the shrimp

Continue rolling. Voila~!

Finished spring roll

Finished spring roll

If desired, cut in half on a bias before serving with the dipping sauce. Also, you are welcome to arrange all of the fillings in the very middle before rolling, like so:

Rolling technique #2

Rolling technique #2

The first method makes for a prettier presentation since the bright pink shrimp are easier seen through just one layer of rice paper rather than multiple.

But they most certainly taste equally delicious!

But they most certainly taste equally delicious!

Serving wise, I would plan on 2-3 rolls per person for lunch and 3-4 rolls per person for dinner. The ratio I provided for the sauce yielded enough to accompany about a dozen rolls.

The Perfect Summer Dish

The Perfect Summer Dish

Spring rolls make for a great picnic item to take along on an outing to a park or beach to enjoy the summer sun. Just wrap them in plastic wrap to keep the rice paper from drying out. Easy peasy!

Thanks again to our friend A for the fresh produce. Nothing like crispy, fresh homegrown cucumbers to really make a spring roll taste extra special. Cheers!

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Pho 79 Restaurant – Westminster, CA

Food Adventures, Orange County

Born and raised in Garden Grove just on the outskirts of the ever-growing Vietnamese enclave, I never really paid attention to all of the changes in Little Saigon until I left the OC and moved to Westwood for undergrad. Visiting every weekend at best, maybe less than once a month at my busiest, I finally took notice of the constant construction, the rotation of new trendy restaurants replacing older storefronts, the evolution of the city itself as its northern borders encroached on The Korean District, and the influx of traffic from local residents and out-of-town visitors alike. Many of my favorite restaurants I dined at while growing up had either closed up shop, changed owners, or hired new chefs. But not Pho 79. I could always count on Pho 79 to bring to my table a piping hot bowl of pho just the way I remembered it when I was a little girl earnestly chowing down on the tô nhỏ (literally translated as “small bowl”) with extra gân (beef tendon) while my parents withheld the toy that would accompany the kids meal until I first finished my food. (That’s right – we were eating offal before offal was cool.)

Beautiful bowl of pho!

Beautiful bowl of pho!

Though we’ve graduated from the college town and moved on to other Westside neighborhoods, I still do not visit home as often as I would like (and certainly not as often as my parents would like), but on those rare occasions, Pho 79 is a beloved part of my dining-out rotation. This Little Saigon icon, situated in a humble standalone building just behind a liquor store, has remained largely unchanged throughout the past 20-something years that I have frequented it. Who knows – maybe it has even stayed more or less the same since it first opened in 1979 (hence the namesake) to serve the immigrant post-war families looking for a bit of familiarity. Even the menus have seen better days and I swear they are the same exact ones that my little 3-year-old hands would thumb through, looking for the soda xí muội (salted plum soda) on the last page.

Vietnamese drip-style coffee

Vietnamese drip-style coffee

Nowadays, my beverage of choice is the cà phê sữa đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee. I take it for granted that everyone here in LA always has somewhere else to be, so the slow-dripping French-style cà phê phin is just not a feasible option for the few Vietnamese restaurants on the Westside. Here at Pho 79 we can slow our pace, just for a bit, and let the dark roast steep at its leisure through the filter and into a mug ready and waiting with a dollop of sữa đặc (sweetened condensed milk).

My bowl (Martin's is MIA due to having been devoured)

My bowl (Martin’s is MIA due to having been devoured)

Martin always gets the phở tái sách, tô xe lửa – the largest bowl (literally translated as “train bowl”) with rare steak slices and tripe. I was unable to snap a photo before he dove right in. This is his standard order and he always looks very content while slurping away, strands of rice noodles hanging askew off the edge of his bowl, so just take our word for it – it’s good.

The condiments for pho

The condiments for pho

I like to go a teeny bit fancier with my pho. I will usually order the phở tái gân bò viên, tái để riêng, tô thường – a so-called “regular” sized bowl loaded with beef tendon and beef meatballs served with rare steak slices on the side. I learned this trick from my dad. See, the broth is always so hot that by the time the chef ladles it into the bowl and the server brings the bowl to my table, the beef has overcooked. Having them bring the beef separately allows me to control the process and enjoy the beef when it has just turned a nice pale pink, cooked by the broth’s residual heat. Yum. I also go crazy with the bean sprouts, mint/herbs (traditionally ngò gai, the one that looks like a long serrated blade, and rau quê, commonly known as Thai basil) and a generous squeeze of a fresh lime wedge. In a separate dish, I will also portion out some hoisin sauce (known affectionately as tương ăn phở, or literally, “sauce to eat with pho”) and Huy Fong Foods sriracha, everyone’s favorite hot sauce. At long last, I’m all set… and Martin’s probably halfway through his train bowl at this point.

Ready to drink - ca phe sua da!

Ready to drink – ca phe sua da!

By the time we are close to finishing our meals, the coffee is ready to be stirred and poured over the tall glasses of ice. Mmm… sweet, creamy heaven with a very strong coffee essence. Starbucks lattes ain’t got nothin’ on this!

If you find yourself in Orange County and craving a hot bowl of comforting soup, I definitely recommend stopping by Pho 79. Don’t be intimidated by the alley-side driveway entrance, and don’t be deterred by the apparent lack of parking – the turnover is excellent even during lunch or dinner rush, so sooner or later, someone will be leaving and you can snag their precious parking space. Sign your name on the clipboard hanging on the door or tell a friendly waiter how many people are in your party (holding up the number on your fingers is A-OK too). Then sit back, relax, and prepare for beefy goodness that will transport you to the real streets of Saigon… or (if you’re lucky) blissful memories of your mom’s kitchen.

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Check out Pho 79 Restaurant: pho79.com

9941 Hazard Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844

See their Yelp reviews here!