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RESTAURANTS : OC LIVE : Inviting and Wide-Ranging, Cafe D'Orient Lives Up to Its Name

December 21, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cafe D'Orient has an amazingly ambitious concept: pan-East Asian food. Imagine a restaurant specializing in a wide variety of European cuisines--say, Czech, Italian, Swedish and English dishes. Now switch the idea to the Asian countries and you begin to appreciate the scope of this new Orange restaurant, run by Thuyhanh Vu and her daughter, Connie Tran.

As the menu tells you, this kitchen attempts to meld the cuisines of China, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. If you're willing to overlook an occasional miss, Cafe D'Orient is a melting pot brimming with inviting things to eat.

This airy cafe is decorated with Christmas lights, artificial plants and poster art. The gregarious Vu is a native of Vietnam, and her excellent English is a result of having been employed at that country's American embassy .

It's not surprising that the best dishes at Cafe D'Orient are Vietnamese, the ones closest to the owners' hearts. (Every dish on the menu is followed by the name of its country of origin, in parentheses.) Vu is also proud of the fact that Cafe D'Orient does not use MSG. In that respect, at least, the restaurant is unlike its counterparts in the vicinity of Little Saigon.

One lunchtime I began a meal with a hearty bowl of hu tieu My Tho, rice noodle soup cooked in the style of the Vietnamese city My Tho. What differentiates this soup from pho, its better-known cousin, is the toppings. Pho is most often eaten with various cuts of beef. This soup is loaded with slices of Vietnamese style pa^te, whole shrimps, dried pork and green onion. It's a great cheap lunch under $5.

I also fancy the restaurant's eggplant stuffed with pork, No. 42 on this extensive menu. The slender eggplants, split and braised, come served under a mound of sauteed minced pork and spices. Bi cuon, which you have to ask for because they're not on the menu, are Vietnamese-style spring rolls, served cold. Unlike the better known cha gio (the densely stuffed, deep-fried imperial rolls, No. 2 on the menu), bi cuon are not fried, but rather assembled out of raw and cooked ingredients. They are best described as thin rice paper crepes wrapped around leafy vegetables, shrimp, and wispy rice noodles. Dip a roll in the Hoisin or chili sauces available on request and voila; a veritable dejeuner sur l'herbe (for those who skipped French class: "lunch on the grass").

The only problem with Cafe D'Orient's pad Thai is that it isn't pad Thai. It is a delicious blend of long, skinny, wheat-flour noodles mixed with shrimp, bean sprouts and crushed peanut in an unctuous peanut sauce. For the record, pad Thai is literally the name for a flat rice noodle. By the way, this is one of the few places around serving som tam (mistakenly called tam som on the menu), a Thai salad made from shredded green papaya tossed with tiny shrimp, crushed peanut and hot chili.

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Among the rice plates--quick one-plate meals for under $6--try the steamed rice with grilled pork, chicken or beef. All the meats have the faint taste of sugar and come to the table beautifully blackened, in the best Vietnamese barbecue tradition.

The only disappointment with a Vietnamese label turns out to be No. 55, fish with chili sauce. I was expecting something more than two pieces of deep-fried cod and a bowl of Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) armed with a flotilla of red chilies.

Traveling around Asia is a breeze on Cafe D'Orient's menu. Their version of gado-gado, the classic Indonesian salad, sort of grows on you. At first I found the peanut butter dressing too thick and too sweet, but after a few bites, it no longer gave that impression, playing off the good flavors of cabbage, carrot, fried tofu, egg and shrimp chips.

From the Philippines comes a tasty version of chicken adobo, the chicken marinated in a dark vinegar sauce laced with soy and garlic. Whenever I've had the dish in a Filipino restaurant, the chicken was in pieces. Here it is diced, Chinese-style.

In a Chinese restaurant, the word Singapore generally connotes a light curry sauce. Cafe D'Orient's Singapore fried rice is a huge, filling mound of rice, salty black beans and fried pork, distinctly Cantonese and dollar for dollar the heaviest dish on the menu.

Malaysian spare ribs are hacked pork rib pieces in a sticky-sweet rust-colored sauce. They are quite good but almost impossible to eat without making a mess. The Japanese supply inspiration for batter-fried tempura vegetables, while the French Vietnamese sandwiches known as banh mi, only $2.50, come on crusty rolls with a choice of chicken, beef or barbecued pork.

Exotic desserts are another journey. Rhu-mit is a bowl of mixed tropical fruits such as longan and jackfruit in coconut milk, while an Indonesian cooler known as es teller mingles these same fruits with crushed ice.

Finish a meal here with a creamy Thai ice tea or coffee made with too much sugar and condensed milk, or with the more sublimated cafe fin, Vietnamese coffee in its own filter pot. Vietnamese coffee is always satisfying, something you naturally want to linger over. Filter coffee is a natural in a place like Cafe D'Orient, with or without the sampans, humid afternoons and colorful passport stamps.

Cafe D'Orient is inexpensive to moderately priced. There is a bountiful all-you-can-eat buffet lunch for $4.99. Menu dishes range from $1.75 to $16.95.

* CAFE D'ORIENT

* 777 S. Main St., Orange.

* (714) 972-8899.

* Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 2:30-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.

* MasterCard and Visa.

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