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Ha Noi adds its intriguingly mild, herbal flavors to Little Saigon's Vietnamese selections.

March 05, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GARDEN GROVE — I visit Little Saigon all the time, and at least once a year I come upon something extraordinary. This year, it's a tiny, charming, wildly exotic place named Ha Noi.

Ha Noi in Little Saigon? Yes, as the name indicates, this is a North Vietnamese restaurant. Many of its best dishes come from the city of Hanoi, hometown of the man who owns Ha Noi, Le Van Hanh.

It's a bare-bones cafe, but it's quite a friendly place. If you don't look Vietnamese, your fellow diners are likely to take it upon themselves to explain what you've ordered and what condiments to eat with it. They really seem eager for you to enjoy the cuisine.

Their help was much appreciated. Almost every dish I tasted here was new to me. But though the menu was almost entirely a mystery, the dishes were very good. I'd characterize Ha Noi's cuisine as mild, herbal and light, based more on pork, chicken and seafood than beef.

My favorite dish here is also, coincidentally, No. 1 on the restaurant's numbered, mostly bilingual menu. The menu calls it barbecued fish on a sizzling platter, but that description doesn't do it justice.

Picture chunks of tender, beautifully braised catfish under a leafy pile of fresh dill. The fish is protected from the hot iron serving platter by a layer of crisply blackened onions. Alongside is a dark brown sauce with a pungent, fruity finish.

A woman at a nearby table suggested dipping the onions into the sauce and then eating them with the fish. I did what she said; it was great.

Then there is No. 93, which the menu describes merely as shrimp mixed with lemon sauce. It looks like some sort of shrimp carpaccio: barely cooked shrimp pounded into a flat paste and doused with a thin, penetrating sauce of vinegar, garlic and lime juice with a powerful shot of lemon grass. This is a dish so highly flavored it's guaranteed to make you sit up straight in your chair. It's an amazing creation, though you'd better be pretty certain that you like lemon grass if you order it.

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Ha Noi's menu has many other surprises. One of the restaurant's best soups, bun bung Ha Noi, is a rich broth with rice vermicelli, mixed vegetables and pig trotters. There isn't much meat on the pigs' feet--they're mostly cartilage--but the broth (so rich you could almost call it a gravy) is a distillation of flavor worthy of a three-star kitchen in Paris. The flavors are punctuated by crumbled perilla (also known as beefsteak leaf or, in Japanese cooking, shiso), an exotically scented relative of basil.

Many of the more accessible dishes are what you might call evolved finger foods. Take No. 49, nem chua cuon. It consists of garlicky, bite-sized cylinders of minced pork, celery, carrots and transparent noodles rolled up in a sheet of rice paper.

You pick one up--wrapping it, if you wish, in a lettuce leaf along with condiments such as mint leaves, bean sprouts and aromatic parsley (ngo gai). Then you dip it in sweetened fish sauce. Eating one of these little packets is a sensual encounter.

Another of my favorites is No. 3, bun cha Ha Noi. This is a combination of mouth-watering charbroiled pork (in two forms: ground-pork patties and thin slices), slightly blackened because of their sweet soy marinade. The idea is to mix the pork with pickled radishes, thin carrot slices and tangles of wispy rice vermicelli, then to wrap up the whole shebang in a lettuce leaf.

Still another dish I fancy is crispy fried yam with shrimp (No. 13). You actually get four yam cakes, which could easily pass for hash browns if they weren't a bright, almost otherworldly shade of orange. Each cake is crunchy from frying, and made even more crunchy by the chunks of shrimp (shell on) mixed into the cakes protruding from the sides and the top.

Item Nos. 63-90 on the menu are listed only in Vietnamese, and it is here that you really sail into unfamiliar waters. I brought a Vietnamese friend to help me order from this part of the menu, and herewith I pass on what I learned under his tutelage.

Thit dong dua chua, No. 70, is something like sulze, the German-style head cheese in aspic, except that it's made from chicken, not pork. Like a sulze, it's a translucent, firmly gelatinous oval laced with meat; but here the meat is chicken parts, including the feet and the neck, which you'll encounter mid-bite in the most surprising ways.

Another exotic dish is No. 75, which is tender, fatty, full-flavored bacon stewed in an iron pot with a sweet sauce. The people of Hanoi must like their pork sweet, because not only this dish but every pork dish I tasted in this restaurant was made with lots of sugar.

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There are far fewer beef dishes than you find on the usual Little Saigon menu. I did try one of them: No. 88, stir-fried pieces of tender flank steak tossed with the reedy, mildly medicinal green vegetable rau muong, a member of the spinach family. It was delicious.

There are some more familiar Vietnamese dishes too. I recommend stir-fried rice noodles with shrimp, catfish and squid (No. 4), or perhaps any of the restaurant's generous rice plates, all of which come piled high with various meat and vegetable toppings.

Of course, those dishes are served in dozens of places around here, but with food like this, Ha Noi, it would appear, has the neighborhood all to itself.

Ha Noi is inexpensive to moderately priced. House specials are $4.25 to $11.25. Salads are $2.50 to $7. Rice plates are $3.95 to $5.

BE THERE

* Ha Noi, 10528 McFadden Ave., Garden Grove. (714) 775-1108. 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Tuesday. Closed Wednesday. Cash only.

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