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New Vietnamese Cuisine : MARKETS : The Best of Little Saigon: Made in America

July 28, 1994|LINDA BURUM

* Little Saigon Supermarket, 9822 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 531-7272, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

The powerful whirling helicopter blades kicked up thick clouds of dust as Twan Ngo pushed her youngest child into a hovering American chopper. It was April 27, 1975, three days before the fall of Saigon and the last time Ngo would see her suburban Saigon home.

Many of the 165,000 Vietnamese who came to the United States in the first post-war wave of immigrants were relocated in Northeastern or Midwestern cities. At first the Ngos found themselves in Green Bay, Wis., where, as you might expect, they found little in the way of Vietnamese food.

Eventually, along with many fellow transplanted Vietnamese, the Ngos wound up in Orange County near the neighborhood centered on Bolsa Avenue--and running from Westminster through Garden Grove to Santa Ana--that came to be known as Little Saigon. Lured by the warmer climate and a growing, cohesive Vietnamese community, the Ngos found many ties to their culture here, one of the strongest being the ready availability of Vietnamese foods and ingredients.

"You won't find most of these vegetables in Wisconsin," Ngo says, picking over the greens in the produce section of the bright, ultra-modern Little Saigon Supermarket on Bolsa Ave. By "these vegetables," she means the dozens of Vietnamese specialties such as bac ha , the pale green spongy stems that go into sour soup, or muop huong , a squash resembling a large zucchini.

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In recent years, specialty produce farming has turned into a livelihood for a number of local Vietnamese farmers, evolving hand in hand with a now-sizable Vietnamese food industry. Many of these California-grown or -made goods are distributed nationwide to serve the million or so Vietnamese who have come to the United States over the years.

At the center of this commercial activity is Orange County, where Vietnamese residents officially increased 271% in the last decade (the Vietnamese-American Political Action Committee contends the number is nearly twice what the census reports). The sheer size of this local customer base opened up a lucrative market for prepared foods as well as shelf-stable items; in much smaller Vietnamese communities, it probably wouldn't be economic to market these perishables.

But at Little Saigon Supermarket, Ngo chooses from an increasing range of Vietnamese-style processed meats, all sorts of fresh noodles, herbs, pickled vegetables and soy products (such as fresh tofu and soy milk) that are impossible to import. The selection has made Vietnamese eating here as close to authentic as it gets outside of Vietnam itself.

As the selection shows, Little Saigon Supermarket owner David Tran knows the Vietnamese food business inside and out. Tran came to the Little Saigon area when it was still in its awkward growth stages--a mere stretch of bean and strawberry fields, flower warehouses and bottling plants, and just a few Vietnamese stores and businesses.

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He had left Vietnam in '78 on a crowded boat and ended up temporarily in Escondido, learning English and studying to be an electronic technician. Tran found it impossible to support his family on a technician's wages, but having been a businessman (a bicycle wholesaler, to be exact) in Vietnam, he perceived a growing need for Vietnamese wholesale food distribution. He formed Delta Food Company and began to supply Orange County's escalating number of Vietnamese restaurants and markets with wholesale produce and other ingredients used for Vietnamese and Chinese cooking.

As time went on, local Asian farmers began to produce small quantities of specialty herbs and vegetables. "Some would ask him to distribute them," says Denise Tran, who is David's sister-in-law and also vice-president of the market.

The 1975 Vietnam trade embargo meant an end to Vietnamese imports. Producers in other Asian countries, particularly Thailand, began putting Vietnamese-language labels on foods they had in common with Vietnam, such as fish paste, dry rice noodles and curry powder, and exporting them to the US for the expatriate market. In the beginning, Tran stocked a lot of these items, but they weren't created specifically for the Vietnamese palate, and many Vietnamese cooks have never ceased to regard them as mere substitutes.

Now, however, Vietnamese in this country are no longer dependent on imports. They're producing their own extravagant assortments of Vietnamese-style sauces, spice blends, pickled fish, fresh rice papers, deli foods, sweets, beverages and baked goods, all made in America.

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