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O.C. Eats

A Feast for the Senses

At the informal Thanh My, one of Little Saigon's oldest restaurants, diners can see, smell, touch and taste some of the most delightful Vietnamese dishes around. Hear, hear!

May 18, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Orange County's greatest culinary distinction is the quality and authenticity of its many Vietnamese restaurants. Little Saigon, which has grown in the last quarter-century to encompass a good chunk of Westminster, values eating well. With a knowledgeable Vietnamese community to keep them on their toes, the neighborhood's restaurants are a treasure.

If you've dined in the area, you already know Vietnamese cuisine to be Southeast Asian with a long Chinese (and a more recent French) influence. But there's more to it than lettuce tacos dipped in fish sauce, noodle soup and cafe filtre. Take Thanh My, one of Little Saigon's oldest restaurants; it offers a large menu--more than 200 dishes--encompassing the cuisine's impressive breadth.

A friend who lives to eat in Little Saigon says Thanh My is the best Vietnamese soul food restaurant around. What I think he means is that dining here is informal in much the same way that dining at a soul food restaurant is. It feels natural to pick from every plate on the table. And (I'm thinking of some of my adventures in barbecue) the best-tasting foods are often messy and have to be eaten by hand. If you're squeamish about spilling food and smelling like fish sauce when you leave, Thanh My may not be for you. But you'd be missing out on a lot.

The set meal called bo 7 mon (seven courses of beef) is memorable. It requires a minimum of two diners, so one night I brought along a beef-loving buddy to help me attack it. Many years ago, the two of us tackled the monumental churrasco at Yolie's, the old Brazilian restaurant in Newport Beach, and stuffed ourselves with so much meat we could barely waddle out. That uncomfortable memory came back at Thanh My as dish after dish of beef arrived.

First was a plate of raw strips of beef that are to be waved, shabu-shabu-style, through boiling vinegary broth before being wrapped in rice paper with fresh herbs and dipped in a tangy bean sauce. This could have been a meal in itself, but then came a salad laden with very rare beef slices smothered in onion, mint, various other greens and a deliriously tangy vinegar dressing.

Then came a large plate of thumb-sized beef bits circling a lump of meatloaf like tire spokes. Rice noodles held the moist, spicy meatloaf together. One kind of beef bit was packed with super-hot red pepper, another was wrapped in pork fat (savory in a heart-seizing manner) and a third wrapped in mint leaves (explosive in flavor in a way you'd never think mint could be). These were courses three through six in this beefapalooza, meaning one more to come.

At this point, we were stuffed, and frankly, the cha dum, a ground beef soup in a gooey rice broth, didn't look promising. But the broth was filled with garlic, onion and mint, a very savory combination. Once again, a course that would have been a great meal on its own.

The sheer size of bo 7 mon makes it unwise to start with appetizers. A pity; some of the most wonderful things here are finger food in the best sense. The crisp imperial egg rolls come with side dishes of assorted greens and rice vermicelli, all to be wrapped in a lettuce leaf and dipped in a savory fish sauce. It's a wonderful mix of flavors, if awkward to handle.

The grilled shrimp balls and charbroiled pork balls are a bit easier to construct, since they are furnished with neat sheets of rice paper for wrapping the contents to dip in various sauces. I like the shrimp and pork rolls best of all. They come already wrapped in rice paper and bursting with mint and shrimp, a refreshing flavor combination.

The main dish choices run the gamut from rice and noodle dishes to soups to sauteed meats and casseroles to porridges. For real Vietnamese cooking, look no further than the goat, wild boar and venison skewer combos served with sauces such as coconut curry.

The staple of coastal Vietnamese cooking is sour fish soup. A particularly tasty one here is the sour shrimp soup with bean sprouts, celery and onion. And pho ap chao--a dish of shrimp, squid and beef pan-fried in stroganoff-style noodles and smothered in a rich beef sauce--is an aromatic delight.

Some other dishes are relatively pedestrian, particularly the ones that incline more to the Chinese style. Chicken with lemon grass and hot chile tastes like a mediocre kung pao chicken, and the chow meins feature impressive mounds of steamed vegetables but insipid sauces.

*

Most disappointing are the hot pots, stylishly presented though they are. Assorted seafood hot pot is a vinegary both filled with onion, tomato, cucumber and mint that simmers in a metal pot shaped like a bundt cake mold over a gas burner. A separate platter teems with raw shrimp, calamari, assorted cuts of fish and sea snails.

When the broth reaches the boil, you're supposed to dump everything in and, when it's done, ladle it into a small bowl of vermicelli.

Sounds good, but the hot, acidic broth drowns the seafood flavor. For me, the whole affair was too messy, considering the open flame, the boiling broth and my own natural clumsiness (you should have seen the mess I made trying to handle the imperial egg roll). Still, it would have been worth it if it had matched the quality of other Thanh My dishes.

Given the amount of effort it takes to navigate Thanh My's appetizers and main dishes, an adventurous group might spend a few hours there. So it's a good thing the restaurant stays open until 1:30 a.m. daily. This, alone, makes it one of the best after-midnight places to eat in Orange County.

Entrees range from $4.50 to $26.

BE THERE

Thanh My, 9553 Bolsa Ave., Westminster. (714) 531-9540. Open 10 a.m.-1:30 a.m. daily.

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