AS dragons run and dance down Bolsa Avenue in Westminster during this Saturday's Tet parade celebrating the lunar New Year, the restaurants of Little Saigon will be opening their doors to floods of revelers. Many of the thousands of Vietnamese Americans who throng to the district for the holiday carnivals, concerts and events will head for favorite places that cook the regional dishes they grew up eating. Others will follow the buzz to check out the latest developments in this lively dining scene.
And lately, those changes have been remarkable.
Fresh energy and style-savvy creativity are flowing through the Vietnamese restaurant community. The sweet-salty heat-tinged complexity of the cuisine is showing up in classier preparations than we've ever seen in Southern California as owners and chefs insist on higher-quality ingredients and improve their cooking standards as well as the likability of their restaurants.
Many of the Vietnamese restaurants that have opened recently in Westminster and surrounding communities seem more connected to today's world than to the past. For example, Grand in Garden Grove, a classy boite specializing in chicken dishes, uses only free-range birds. Fountain Valley's Aysya promises fusion food and Le V, in the same town, boasts a wall of wines that bisects its bistro-Moderne dining room.
These trend-conscious ventures resemble the old-fashioned minimalist pho shops and sandwich joints of the immigrant community's early years about as much as Wolfgang Puck's edgy new Red Seven resembles Musso & Frank Grill.
"People's expectations are different now," says Cecilia Le, a former financial analyst who owns 6-month-old Le V Cuisine. Her customers tend to be business professionals who enjoy wines with her menu of Vietnamese and fusion dishes and shareable small plates such as small spring lamb chops arranged on blue cheese-spiked potato "fondue" or salmon carpaccio sprinkled with crispy capers and chives. They're not averse to culinary experimentation, Le says.
OTHER restaurateurs must share her perception that restaurant-goers will support ambitious, pricier places in Little Saigon. In 2006 the Dang family, which has had great success with its casual cafe, Brodard Nem Nuong, went for the big time, opening Brodard Chateau, a beautifully appointed, bi-level, 8,000-square-foot restaurant with a full bar, fireplace and Euro-Asian menu.
Several of the family's trademark, stuffed rice-paper rolls (cuon) from the cafe are on the menu here. But there are also handsome meal-sized salads and daily specials that include rice paper-wrapped soft shell crab and braised chicken, coq au vin style.
Even more up-market, on the outskirts of Little Saigon, in a sleek contemporary wood-lined pair of dining rooms, is 2-year-old S Vietnamese Fine Dining. Chef-owner Stephanie Dinh prepares traditional Vietnamese items such as northern-style deep-fried sweet potato cake studded with shrimp, as well as dishes with a more Euro-Asian bent, for example, lemon grass-encrusted lamb chop served on broken rice.
It's become easier, bit by bit, for Vietnamese restaurateurs to strike a balance between pleasing traditionalists and courting a growing multicultural audience.
It's not always about getting fancier. Attempts to reach out to a crossover market can be as subtle as accepting credit cards or creating a name with a hint of familiarity: Instead of such Vietnamese appellations as Banh Mi & Che, you find Baguette Planet, Pho Republic Noodles and Grill, Pholicious or Rockin Crawfish.
What propels restaurateurs into such a challenging profession when, 30 years after the postwar wave of immigration, many other business opportunities exist? Love for the cuisine, several owners said in interviews, and an almost-missionary zeal for showing off its stunning virtues.
Former engineer Trish Doan champions the knockout flavors of her perfectionist mother's central-style cooking at Cafe Co La. Her mi quang, a brilliant dish of wide, yellow rice noodles tossed in a curry-like sauce, topped with a host of garnishes that include two tiny quail eggs, banana flower shreds and a thatch of crisply fried shallots vaut le voyage, as the French would say -- it's worth a drive.
"We don't try to have one of those encyclopedic menus; we just focus on a few good things," Doan says.
The cafe's hipness factor comes from a smart palette of citrus colors on curvilinear walls and a lengthy list of fresh, frothy fruit smoothies, milky tea and the boba drinks to go with those good things.
At Pho Republic Noodles and Grill, owner Tina Vu aims to introduce the pleasures of traditional Vietnamese-style dining into the American mainstream with her house specialty, the Saigon wrap. The assembly includes grill-your- own shrimp, scallops, thinly sliced beef and more.