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ORANGE COUNTY STYLE : THREE TASTES OF ETHNICITY : Sampling the unusual in Vietnamese, Mexican/Southwestern, Italian cuisine

October 04, 1987|CHARLES PERRY | Perry is restaurant reviewer for The Times Orange County Edition.

Orange County loves a feast for the eyes--and the palate. At one time, diners had to choose: lovely surroundings for a price or authentic ethnic food at a bargain. Happily, those days are gone.

Whether pinching pennies or splurging, you don't have to look far for a beautiful place to enjoy a splendidly prepared ethnic meal.

Look at what's happening, for example, to the Vietnamese restaurants so unique to the county. "Little Saigon" on Westminster Boulevard is the location of at least 60 Vietnamese eateries. Most are simple mom-and-pop diners, but they are beginning to catch on to the Orange County style: They're starting to look gorgeous. (Their food always was.)

Grand Gardens is by far the grandest Vietnamese restaurant. Hidden away in a shopping plaza, the place is nothing like the usual Little Saigon eatery that's decorated with tasseled lamps and travel posters.

A narrow courtyard graced by a stone waterfall and bonsai trees gives way to a spacious room full of light and bright with flowers. The mural on the far wall depicts a characteristic Vietnamese landscape of lush tropical farmland.

Exotic entrees of eel, goat and squab provide grace notes to the basic theme of Vietnamese cuisine: colorful noodles of all sizes, shapes and degrees of transparency. Many noodle dishes are eaten like a taco. You take a lettuce leaf in hand and use it to swoop up meat and noodles with herbs and pickled vegetables, perhaps dipping the tasty package into a "fish sauce" that smells like Worcestershire sauce without the tamarind.

A good example is bun cha : snowwhite rice noodles, a bowl of grilled pork (in concentrated pork broth), and a plate of lettuce, mint, cilantro, a spicy purple-leafed basil and strips of pickled carrot.

The Vietnamese are famous for shrimp dishes. Chao tom is a delirious offering, more or less a shish kebab of shrimp paste, formed not around a regular skewer, but a peeled length of sugar cane. You eat the shrimp and then chew on the shrimp-flavored cane.

Cang cua boc tom are gigantic crab claws that seem too huge to be real. They aren't. They are real crab claws encased in shrimp paste, leaving the tip of the claw visible for use as a handle. This dish comes with a fetching example of Vietnamese vegetable sculpture: a cucumber cleverly carved into a green crab, with match-stick heads for eyes.

The classic Vietnamese restaurant dish is a traditional meal of beef served seven ways, always written on menus (and restaurant signs) as "bo 7 mon." One course is thin strips of beef to be "rinsed" in sweetened vinegar in a hot pot and made into a lettuce taco (wrapped in translucent "rice paper"). Another course is a rich beef broth, and a third is a beef salad.

The rest are surprisingly different kinds of meatballs--long, thin and flavored with coconut; wrapped in an aromatic leaf; mixed with transparent noodles and so on. Everybody ought to have seven-course beef at least once.

Despite its superior decor, Grand Garden's prices fall within the usual Vietnamese range. Entrees are priced from $3.95 to $14.

Grand Garden, 8894 Bolsa Ave. (not visible from the street), Westminster. Telephone 893-1200. Open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Monday. No credit cards; cash or check only.

Mexican restaurants, too often the victims of cliche, can dish up the unexpected. El Torito is one of the more successful chains of Mexican restaurants in California, offering reliable, familiar Sonoran dishes. However, in Fashion Island--with the national headquarters of El Torito a few miles away--there is an El Torito unlike any other. Actually, it's not an El Torito, it's the El Torito Grill, with a completely different look: not dark Mexican baroque, but spare, whitewashed Southwestern, replete with desert plants and geometric Indian designs.

There's a fascinating high-tech sight: a press that stamps out flour tortillas. You might see your own tortilla pressed and then cooked on a huge, slowly revolving tortilla griddle. You can also watch your meat being roasted--this is a Mexican restaurant with a mesquite-fueled rotisserie grill.

Although owned by a chain, this restaurant bears the imprimatur of one man--chef David Wilhelm, who a few years ago ran an innovative eclectic restaurant called Pave in Corona del Mar. Even then he was experimenting with variations of Mexican and New Mexican dishes, so it's perfectly natural that here he provides not only the usual El Torito hot sauce on your table but also a sauce of barbecued peppers and onions flavored with vinegar and cilantro.

He also presents a delicious yellow pasta made from corn flour, rather like fettucine Alfredo with a hearty corn flavor and a slight red pepper bite.

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