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2 Ways to Eat a Path Through Little Saigon : Hue Rendez-Vous and My Nguyen Are Fine Starting Points

July 01, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Little Saigon, the cluster of Vietnamese shops in Westminster and Garden Grove, is properly regarded as a valuable cultural resource for our community. Most of my friends, though, look at it as the place for cheap, delicious food. Last week I visited two of the more unusual restaurants there, and as usual, I got a lot more than I bargained for.

Hue Rendez-Vous specializes in the spicy, exotic fare of central Vietnam, a hilly region that was for centuries home to the imperial Vietnamese dynasty. It is fitting that this restaurant serves an array of imperial dishes at peasant prices. No dish at Hue Rendez-Vous is more than $4.25, but the food is literally fit for a king.

Credit the remarkable Tran family--nine girls, two boys and one mighty powerful mom--for the rise of central Vietnamese cooking here in Westminster. You're likely to be greeted by daughter Thanh Suan, whose name means "vernal equinox." Dishes will probably be cooked by daughter Thanh Thanh, the second youngest. No matter who takes care of you, Hue Rendez-Vous is a family affair. Especially with regard to what you eat.

The region's most famous dish is bun bo Hue, a spicy red broth with noodles and sliced beef, but I recommend getting the same noodle dish with pork leg instead: No. 3, bun bo gio heo on the menu. Banh ram is remarkable, a glutinous, pounded rice cake, similar to Japanese mochi but far more flavorful. This one is fried around the edges, then topped with crumbled shrimp. You eat it with nuoc mam , the all-purpose Vietnamese fish sauce, and plenty of fiery hot chili paste.

The ingenious banh beo Tay Thuong ( banh beo rice flour crepes as prepared in a village called Tay Thuong) might be the most unforgettable dish here. You are brought a metal tray of a dozen tiny saucers, each of which is lined with a nearly invisible rice flour crepe topped with pork cracklings and shrimp paste. Peel them off, fold them in half and douse them with the various condiments and raw vegetables on your table. They're completely irresistible.

Banh bot loc are glossy tapioca-flour cakes stuffed with whole shrimp and slices of jellied pork. Cha gio chao are a version of Vietnamese egg rolls with the same crisp, almost transparent skin but a light shrimp meat stuffing. Like their better-known counterparts, you wrap them up in lettuce leaves and plenty of mint and then dip them in a sweet, sticky sauce.

Don't expect much atmosphere. This is a small, boxy room that gets quite steamed up when crowded. You can cool off with squeezed-to-order orange juice, great filtered coffee or a cooling Vietnamese dessert. The best one is probably che bot loc boc dua , which are tiny, peanut-filled tapioca balls in warm ginger syrup.

But no matter where you sit, Hue Rendez-Vous is a hot property and a terrific addition to the local scene.

It is also inexpensive. Dishes cost between $1.50 and $4.25.

*

My Nguyen, by contrast, is a bright-lights, big-city sort of joint, a veritable food emporium with an enormous menu and seating for more than 100.

For some reason the crowd is largely Vietnamese-American students who wear articles of clothing in every conceivable way except the ones intended by the various manufacturers.

Expect loud Vietnamese pop music and a loud decor of gilt chairs and faux-marble columns to go with it.

But even if you consider these excesses a lapse in taste, all will be forgiven when you dig into your food here. Everything is terrific, from luon bam xuc banh trang (ground eel over rice cake) to plain old com tam (steamed rice dishes). I've never had a bad dish from this menu, which has more than 100 selections. And the portions are large, even the inexpensive dishes.

For instance, $2.95 gets you a hearty Vietnamese sausage and rice cake salad, loaded up with shredded greens, crushed peanuts and half-moon-shaped rounds of a sausage I can only describe as the world's most exotic bologna. For the same price you could choose com tam suon nuong , a mountain of steamed, slightly broken pieces of rice with a tasty spareribs topping.

Chao huyet and mi bo vien are what I would describe as acquired tastes. The first is a heady soup fashioned with cubes of jellied pork blood, which is said to aid those who have had a tipple or two. The second is a crunchy meatball soup, sort of an Asian albondigas. So the meatballs have the texture of Play-Doh; I think they taste great.

The really interesting dishes here are to be found on the long list of specialties (unfortunately, the specialties are considerably higher in price than the noodle and rice dishes and generally unavailable after 9 p.m.). Bo cau quay is deliciously spiced and roasted pigeon, simply grilled over coals. Grilled beef ( nuong vi ) is eaten with raw bean sprouts, chopped cabbage and chili paste.

Com ga Hai Nam and tom lan bot My Nguyen show just how international this cooking really is. The first is a Chinese favorite, chopped chicken in the style of the island of Hainan served over a bed of oily, chicken-flavored rice. Tom lan is . . . plain old Japanese shrimp tempura. And at $6.50, it's far more than, yep, you bargained for.

My Nguyen is inexpensive to moderate. Dishes start at $2.95 and climb to $14.95.

* HUE RENDEZ-VOUS

* 15562 Brookhurst St., Westminster.

* (714) 775-7192.

* Open Friday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Thursday.

* Cash only.

* MY NGUYEN

* 14282 Brookhurst St., Suite 9-10, Garden Grove.

* (714) 839-5541.

* Open Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight.

* MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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