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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Old Favorites and New Discoveries in Little Saigon

Having written about Little Saigon over many years, I was looking at my last post from a year ago and realized I should update the entry. Many of my favorite restaurants have closed. To replace those, I have found others but I am sorry to see old friends depart from the Westminster culinary scene.

Certain foods cause people to become rhapsodic. Proust had his madeleines. I have pho ga. At Pho Vinh Ky, the large bowl of chicken soup and rice noodles arrives with a plate of fresh herbs and vegetables and a small bowl of dipping sauce.
Traditionally, the herbs and vegetables are added to the broth. Rau ram, ngo gai, bean sprouts, mint, Thai basil, purple perilla, a lime wedge and thick slices of serrano peppers add brightness to the flavors. I love the dipping sauce, nuoc cham gung, a mix of lime juice, dried pepper flakes, finely chopped fresh ginger and fish sauce. Everyone has their own way to eat pho. Mine is to eat the noodles first. Each spoonful flavored by the pungent, hot, salty dipping sauce.
If you haven't eaten Vietnamese food, you have missed out on one of the great Asian cuisines. Known primarily for their noodle soups, plates of barbecued meats piled high on mounds of broken rice or served in a bowl with vermicelli noodles and stir fries spiced with lemon grass, Vietnamese food has spread into the wider culinary community because of the popularity of pho (hot beef and chicken soups with noodles) and banh mi (crusty baguettes with spicy meats and pickled vegetables).With several large Vietnamese communities around the country, we are lucky to live close to Little Saigon in Orange County.

My trip to Little Saigon begins at Pho Vinh Ky with a large bowl of pho ga (chicken soup with noodles), only dark meat, and a Vietnamese iced coffee with milk. Arriving early in the morning, the restaurant is cold and mostly empty. The large window faces a small parking lot bordering busy Westminister Boulevard. A dozen Vietnamese men and women are also eating pho. Their heads bent low over the steaming bowls, chop sticks in one hand, a Chinese soup spoon in the other, they eat the more familiar, beef version of pho. 
Because we live an hour away from Garden Grove and Westminster, the epicenter of Orange County's Vietnamese community, instead of eating several dishes at one restaurant, I'll eat one dish at each of my favorite restaurants, taking home what I don’t finish and moving on to the next one. If you hadn’t guessed, that means I bring freezer packs and a small cooler for take-away because the left overs are delicious for next day-breakfast and lunch.

In between meals, I'll hunt out the best bargains at the local supermarkets. 

Here is the list of places I love going to in Little Saigon. Hope you have an afternoon to explore the area. A few weeks ago, I brought home two live Dungeness crabs from ABC (see below: a supermarket on Bolsa at Magnolia) for $5.99/lb. The shiitake mushrooms were also a bargain at $4.99/lb. at My Thuan.

RESTAURANTS

Many of the restaurants only take cash.  Most of them open for breakfast and stay open until late (which can mean 7:30am - 11:00pm; but often it means 10am - 10pm).

Pho Vinh Ky
8512 Westminster Blvd, Suite F
Westminister 92683
714/894-9309

Next to the Stater Brothers’ Market, west of Magnolia, east of Beach (Beach Blvd Exit on the Garden Grove/22 Fwy), Pho Vinh Ky has the best pho ga (chicken noodle soup) in the area. The light broth is clean tasting, the dark meat is sweet and the noodles are chewy. The interior is nondescript. The waitstaff is friendly even if they don't speak English. Besides the pho ga, the other dishes I would also recommend the spring rolls with shrimp and pork, crispy rice noodles with vegetables and tofu, BBQ pork with vermicelli, BBQ shrimp with vermicelli, the pork chop with broken rice and the BBQ pork with broken rice, topped with a fried egg.


Garlic & Chives by Kristin
Mall of Fortune Mall
9892 Westminster Ave & Brookhurst
Garden Grove, CA 92844
 714/591-5196

An upscale Vietnamese restaurant with affordable prices and an extensive menu. There are many familiar dishes on the menu like bbq pork with vermicelli and fish filet on a sizzling platter. The difference is the quality of the ingredients and presentation. Fancy enough for date night but inexpensive enough to bring the family, Garlic & Chives is one of my favorites especially because my wife loves their Grilled Fish with Turmeric and Dill. 

Brodard Restaurant
Mall of Fortune Mall
9892 Westminster Avenue
Garden Grove, CA 92844
714/530-1744

Located inside the mall behind Garlic & Chives, Brodard is an immensely popular restaurant with a large dining room in the back and a smaller dining room adjacent to the area where half a dozen cooks prepare house special rolls filled with vegetables and rice noodles with a choice of meats, shrimp or tofu. The take-out counter is almost as busy as the restaurant. I have to confess I have never eaten in the restaurant. We always eat at Garlic & Chives and I run over to Brodard to order to-go bbq pork chop with broken rice and vermicelli with crushed peanuts and grilled shrimp or vermicelli and bbq pork.

Mint Leaf - Dim Sum
Located inside My Thuan Supermarket
8900 Westminster Blvd
Westminster, CA 92683
www.mintleafoc.com

Visible through the glass doors leading into the north side of My Thuan Supermarket (see below), Mint Leaf serves a dozen dim sum as well as another dozen Chinese and Vietnamese dishes as varied as braised chicken feet and soy sauce noodles with vegetables. I always buy a serving or two of shrimp filled har gow, pork filled bao and shumai. I eat a few at one of the tables and bring the rest home for a taste treat that night.

Dim Sum - Giai Phat Food Co.
9550 Bolsa Ave. #123, 124,
Westminster, CA 92683

In a mini-mall there are a dozen other restaurants including a Chinese take out restaurant serving inexpensive, well-made dim sum.

T.P. Banh Bao 2
13067 Euclid Street
Garden Grove, CA 92843
714/539-4119

On the edge of the Vietnamese area of Garden Grove, just north of the 22 Freeway, T.P. Banh Bao 2 is tucked away in a corner of a mini-mall next to Dalat Supermarket (see below). There is usually a line of customers waiting to take home a package with a dozen bao. Serving freshly made bao with a dozen different fillings, the most popular bao is filled with ground pork. Delicious fresh, they freeze well. When re-heated, they taste almost as good as they did when they were first made.

Le Croissant Dore
9122 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683 
714/895-3070
lecroissantdore.com

On the eastern end of a mini-mall with half a dozen small restaurants there is a French-Vietnamese bakery/restaurant called Le Croissant Dore that sells good Vietnamese style French pastries. One of the specialties of the kitchen is a bœuf bourguignon that’s spicy with unexpected heat. Served with a freshly baked baguette, customers eat in a small dining room within sight of the bakery counter or outside at half a dozen tables which are usually occupied by circles of men, talking and reading newspapers. The Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk is delicious but very strong.

Saigon’s Bakery
8940 Westminster Blvd
Westminster, CA 92683
714/896-8782
http://saigonsbakery.com

A few doors from My Thuan (below), Saigon's Bakery sells breads, rolls and Vietnamese pastries, drinks and sweets, which, for most items, when you buy two, the third is free. People stand in line to buy the foot-long banh mi with a dozen different fillings. The baguettes are perfectly crisp on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside.

MARKETS

There are a great many supermarkets in Little Saigon as well as Korean Markets in Garden Grove. Each one is different although they carry many of the same products. The prices are also pretty much the same, but there are notable differences between them.

My Thuan Supermarket
8900 Westminster Blvd.
Westminster CA 92683
714/899-0700

A large supermarket with excellent fresh produce, dried noodles and frozen seafood, My Thuan has better prices than most of the nearby markets. My wife loves charred octopus salad with potatoes. My Thuan sells both fresh baby octopus and large frozen octopus. The fresh seafood, poultry and meat counters have all the cuts familiar to anyone who shops in Asian markets. The quality is above average. The prices are very affordable. The fresh shiitake mushroom price is the lowest in the area.

MOM Supermarket
5111 W. Edinger Avenue (the entrance is on Euclid)
Santa Ana 92704
714/839-3939

MOM has a good fish market but while they have live seafood, the prices are better at ABC; they have a fantastic dried and fresh noodle area and great selection of Asian sauces.

ABC Supermarket
8970 Bolsa Avenue at Magnolia
Westminster 92683
714/379-6161

Great for live lobsters (usually $7.99-$8.99/lb) and Dungeness crab ($5.99-7.99/lb), they have a large selection of fish, some in live tanks, fresh and frozen. The produce section is excellent, with shiitake mushrooms, leafy vegetables, citrus, onions, aromatic herbs and garlic as well as fresh poultry (chicken and duck), beef and pork. 

Bolsa BBQ
8938 Bolsa Avenue
Westminster, CA 92683
714/903-2485

Sharing the parking lot with ABC Supermarket are a dozen other businesses, restaurants and bakeries. Bolsa BBQ sells freshly prepared whole pig, chickens, ducks and delicious bao with hardboiled egg & pork.

Dalat Supermarket
13075 Euclid Street  at the intersection of Garden Grove Blvd & the 22
Garden Grove 92843
714/638-9900

The majority of dried noodles sold in Asian markets use lye. One of the few companies to avoid using lye in their noodles is found at Dalat: Twin Rabbit Vegetarian Noodles (Mi Chay Soi Lon) Product of Vietnam - dried wheat noodles: $1.19.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Long Day's Journey into Happiness at Savor Italy

Who doesn’t love a good plate of pasta? Or an antipasti with cheeses, meats and vegetables? I know, those aren’t legitimate questions because the answer is “Everyone!”

Italian dishes rank high on the short list of favorite food. A good Italian restaurant is a treasure in any neighborhood.

Recently I attended Savor Italy Los Angeles. The event was devoted not to a tasting of restaurant dishes but of products available for the home.  The one-day event was hosted by the IACCW (Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West) to promote imported Italian food and wine. For the 30+ purveyors, the event was an opportunity to interact with distributors and consumers. Most offered a tasting of their wines, olives oils, charcuterie and packaged baked goods.

With wine glass in hand, I joined the crowds at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club waking past rows of tables. Many of the companies had local distributors, but not all as the signs on their tables said, “Looking for Distributors.”

A catered buffet lunch was another way to shine a spotlight on Italian products with large platters of charcuterie, cheeses, olives, crackers, breads and olive oil catered by the attentive Elisabetta Ciardullo Criel of Think Italian Events. I filled my plate with Italian ham, mortadella, paper-thin flat breads, Gorgonzola, burrata and Castelvetrano Green olives while I looked for a nice glass of wine to go with my lunch-snack.

The fun of the event was not only in sampling wines and snacking on Italian taste treats but in talking with the people who were there to represent their products.
It was early in the day so I thanked Gian Mario Travella for the offer to taste his Freccianera Prosecco. Near closing time I did return to sample the amber colored, barrel-aged Grappa Invecchiato. Very delicious.

With a smile Andrea Grondona offered a taste of Grondona Pasticceria’s pan dolce (sweetened bread with bits of fruit) and the Baci di Dama (chocolate ganache filled cookies). Full of flavor and moist, I was impressed that packaged baked goods could taste so fresh.

A few steps away, Leo Melgar and Giancarlo Rosito stood behind the Rosito Bisani table with machines used in an Italian restaurant kitchen--a panini press, deli slicer, hard cheese grater for Parmesan and a pasta extruder. They had one home machine, The Reale 1 Compact Espresso Machine.

With a butter cookie in hand, a last gift from Andrea Grondona, I explained how happy I would be to have an espresso to go with my cookie. Being a good Italian with a love of hosting, Rosito led me upstairs where the Reale was set up. His strong cup of espresso was the perfect accompaniment for my butter cookie.

Upstairs from the downstairs

A mezzanine meeting room was set aside for presentations about Italian wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In that quiet room, speakers talked about the terroir that gave their products their unique qualities.

Smartly dressed wait staff poured samples as speakers talked through their Power Point presentations.

“Ready for bubbles?”

I arrived as Laura Donadoni was describing the terroir and techniques of the Franciacorta winery located in the north of Italy. As a server poured a tasting of the La Valle “Primum” Brut (75 % Chardonnay; 20% Pinot Noire; 5% Pinot Blanc), I settled in behind a flight of six wine glasses.

Donadoni asked us to raise our glasses so we could appreciate the fine bubbles streaming from the bottom of the sparkling wine flute. 

She regaled the gathered group of aficionados with details of weather, soil quality and harvest particulars that created the distinctive qualities of half a dozen Franciacorta wines.

When I returned for the 6:00pm wine tasting, Laura Donadoni had returned to introduce wines from Lugana. Very different from the morning’s sparkling wines, I liked the 2013 Lugana Doc Vendemmia Tardiva, a light dessert white wine. With its ginger, lemon zest notes, for Donadoni, the wine would be perfect at the end of a meal with cheese or with a dessert like panna cotta.

After we had a sip of the Lugana Doc Riserva, Donadoni polled the gathered group, “What do you taste? What notes?” With noses in their glasses and swirling before tasting, people called out, “Watermelon” and “Jasmine.” 

“Everybody, each one of us, can feel what we taste and smell based on what we have lived in our lives. It is very individual. The difficult part is to connect a sensation with a name.  Ok, now we can drink it.” The 2015 Lugana Doc CONCHIGLIA (Citari) had a clean flavor, light, with more acidity than minerality. Very pleasurable.

The 2014 Lugana Doc Superiore CA LOJERA (Ca’ Lojera) was fermented in oak barrels and that gave the wine a spiciness. We took in the aroma and sipped as she talked about how we could taste “wood” and white clay in the wine with a little “apple” sweetness. 

While she was talking, the A/V went blank. “It is telling me, ok, Laura, time to stop.” 

But with a smile she continued because she loved the wine and its layers of flavors. “It has a sweet lemon and almond flavors and a beautiful finish of apricot with a touch of minerality. The wine can age another 5 years with great benefit" and with that she ended her presentation to the audience's applause.

Oil and Vinegar

The final guided tasting of the day was not about wine but “Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar, Modena.” U.C. Davis’ Orietta Gianjorio is a juror and author,  a 3rd level, Advanced Sommelier, Certified Olive Oil Taster and Member of the Italian Registry (also a 2nd Level Honey Taster, 2nd Level Chocolate Taster, a Delegate for the Academia Italiana della Cucina, and author and International Judge.) Given all her titles, you can tell that Italians take their food very seriously!

Her tasting was not only designed to give us a flavor experience but also to introduce us to the vocabulary we would use to describe that experience.

The olive oil tasting sheet listed disagreeable and agreeable qualities. DEFECTS, it said would be rancid, fusty, musty and winey. AROMAS like green, ripe, citrus, mint, hay-straw and almond are good. And then there was a question about BODY. We would taste for mild, medium or robust.

The same was going to be true of the balsamic vinegars she had brought with her. Balsamic had a different set of descriptive words to communicate quality: DENSITY (thick, fluid, inconsistent, lipid, slightly veiled, cloudy), COLOR (light brown, dark brown, Brown, Amber, Dark Amber); SMELL (Intensity, Persistency) with aromas of raspberries, apricots, plums, dates, figs, prunes, raisins, cassis, black currant, blackberry and so on.

Gianjorio loves what she does and with the short time available to her, she had much to share. “We have an hour or more but you tell me when you are tired. I will teach you how to evaluate your palate when you taste balsamic vinegars and olive oil. I do this every day so I am used to it.”

She explained that a taster has to have good taste buds but also must practice tasting to be good at it.

But before we could do our tasting, she talked about fundamentals.

Extra Virgin Olive Oils

“Extra Virgin,” she asked, “What does that mean?” She polled the group. After a lot of guesses, she explained that it does not mean “first press or cold press.” Today olives are not pressed. Olives are washed, defoliated, then ground up with hammers inside a closed container. The change from open grinding was to prevent the olives being exposed to oxygen because once oxidation begins, the quality of the oil decreases.

After grinding, the olive oil is “massaged” before being placed in a centrifuge which separates the water from the oil. The water is discarded. The oil is filtered and graded.

To be labeled “Extra Virgin” the product must be an oil that is produced only with olives and was extracted with a mechanical not chemical method at a specific temperature (80-86 degrees). After production, the olive oil cannot be mixed with any other oil. And the oil must all be “new” oil not a mixture of old and new.

But that is not the end of the story.

Before labeling, the oil must be laboratory tested for free fatty acids because that will tell whether or not the oil was oxidized which would give the oil a rancid taste. And, finally, the olive oil must go through a sensory advisory panel (8 people) who certify that the olive oil is free of defects.

So “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” is a label indicating a manufacturing process and the quality of the product.

I soaked up every detail of her talk. I tasted the olive oils and the balsamic vinegars and they were delicious.

At the end of the tasting, it was time to leave. Downstairs, the last of the tables had been stacked and ready to be loaded into trucks. People pushed brooms to sweep away the litter. Two people poured the last of a wine bottle into their glasses and saluted each other.

I walked out into the cool night air. What a good day spent enjoying so much great Italian food and wine.

What fun to “Savor Italy.”