Nearly any of the hundreds of restaurants surrounding Little Saigon will put up food to carry out, so coming to this district without a firm choice in mind can be a dizzying experience.
Vien Dong I in Garden Grove is one of my favorites, not only because it is small, clean and charming, but because it is unusual to boot. The restaurant specializes in the exotic fare of the northern part of Vietnam, free of the Chinese influences of the south. These foods are ideal for light suppers.
Wandering in, you're bound to notice all the strange and wonderful foodstuffs, packaged to go, on the front counter. There are flavorful steamed rice cakes with pork called banh chung, glass jars of pickled eggplant and whole shrimp, little balls of tamarind pulp, sticky rice with mung bean and peanut powder (which the Vietnamese eat at breakfast)--in short, not exactly what you'd find at your local Ralphs.
Vien Dong's rice noodle soups are killers, packaged to go in non-leak cardboard cartons that don't hold heat too well. One of the best is bun gia cay, pig's trotters in a rich broth. There isn't much meat on these hoofs; they are mostly cartilage. But the broth, or gravy if you prefer, is the purest distillation of flavor this side of a three-star kitchen in Paris, punctuated by a topping of crumbled shiso (beefsteak leaves prominent in Japanese cooking).
Bun bung is a soup composed of cubes of deep fried tofu, sliced plantains, raw green papaya and pieces of stewed pork. The broth is flavored with fish and may be an acquired taste. My friend's wife wrinkled her nose upon tasting it, saying, "This reminds me of something I feed to my kitty." Hey, I like the stuff.
Many of these dishes are finger foods. Nem nuong are mouth-watering balls of charbroiled minced pork, made with a sugary marinade and topped with pieces of pickled radish and carrot. Do as the Vietnamese do and mix it with cold tangles of wispy rice noodle, then wrap one up taco style in a lettuce leaf with mint, coriander and squiggles of an otherworldly green vegetable described to me only as choy.
Do the same with chao tom, charbroiled shrimp paste on sugar cane served with rice paper and peanut sauce. These rice papers, incidentally, are thin disks that harden after about 10 minutes in the car. I wouldn't eat them at that point, but I would give them to the kids. You can fling them about 50 feet.
Avoid deep-fried dishes for carry out; they don't travel well. Shredded papaya salad with beef jerky ( du du bo kho ) will keep a long time, as will the various soups and any of the reheatable steamed rice crepes known as banh cuon.
And be sure to try some of the desserts on the counter, if you can identify them. Bite-size rich almond cookies come in lock-top plastic containers. The refrigerator case contains weird looking green worms of rice flavored with pandan leaf in plastic tumblers, ready to be mixed with jackfruit, coconut milk and agar agar. Find that in Ralphs.
VIEN DONG I AND III
Vien Dong I at 9684 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove. Vien Dong III at 10528 McFadden Ave., Garden Grove.
I, (714) 539-4614; III, (714) 775-1108.
Both restaurants are open from 8:30 a.m. daily, Monday through Thursday until 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m.