In Little Saigon, modest fortunes have been made on spring rolls alone. Entire legacies have been decided by the buttery crunch of a warm baguette. Diners anoint only the most exacting items: fresh-pressed sugarcane juice with muddled kumquats, whole baked catfish with skin caramelized into candy. Here, restaurants are immortalized in the details.
It's with that diligence that Uyen Thy Bistro so often succeeds. This is a restaurant innately aware of its strengths even when the immensity of its menu sometimes indicates otherwise.
Uyen Thy is predictably secluded in a sliver of space at the bottom of a three-story strip mall behind a 7-Eleven. But the restaurant isn't easily eclipsed — it's the namesake of Uyen Thy, host of a well-known Vietnamese cooking show on the Garden Grove-based Saigon Broadcasting Television Network.
Carrying that cachet is a roster of French-Vietnamese recipes. There's pan-seared sole and chicken cordon bleu, garlic butter pastes and red wine reductions. That fusion also manifests itself in the dining room, with knickknacks that are equal parts well-meaning bistro and colonial kitsch. Many of the restaurant's Francophile dishes straddle that same divide.
Early birds get the best of Uyen Thy. Breakfast on Bolsa Avenue usually means a bowl of pho or maybe a pork-packed pâté chaud. Here, it's egg heaven. Tear off a hunk of fresh baguette, pile on a smear of rich pâté and a slice of pale Vietnamese ham and run it all through the golden yolks of a pair of sunny-side-up eggs. Uyen Thy's excellent French-inflected breakfast is a morning meal in the Western sense, one that prioritizes protein.
Or wake up to bo kho. The homey stew is a breakfast staple: cubes of beef shank and carrots slow-cooked in a broth spiked with star anise and cinnamon. At Uyen Thy, the bo kho is almost as deeply flavored as a Oaxacan mole. With the accompanying baguette, it's a dish that feels at once familiar and foreign, like the contents of your mother's Crock-Pot after a summer abroad.
Among the restaurant's specials are steaks capped with fried eggs and an enviable bo luc lac, wok-tossed diced filet mignon with a sharp watercress salad. Ga roti — a boneless chicken thigh fried until its skin practically shatters — keeps it crunchy with fried triangles of sweet white rice, sweet black rice or both cooked inside a woody bamboo stem. Those who prefer fish can opt for ca nuong la chuoi, catfish swaddled in banana leaves and grilled, its flesh perfumed with lemongrass and chiles.
Uyen Thy isn't a noodle house, but the restaurant composes respectable bowls regardless. There are soups of udon-like banh canh, thick, whippy noodles entwined with shrimp, crab, barbecued pork or pig's feet. Better is the mi vit tiem, a nest of wiry egg noodles bracing a braised duck leg. It's an indulgent dish: The duck is flash-fried and then stewed in the soup's heady broth, its skin as blackened as centuries-old hardwood and its meat as tender as pulled pork. Cilantro, green onions and shiitake mushrooms crowd the soup's surface.
There seems to be room for everything at Uyen Thy: porridges and rice plates, lotus root salads and sheets of banh hoi, tangles of rice vermicelli pounded flat into doilies. The menu isn't quite as encyclopedic as those at the Little Saigon restaurants that survey rather than specialize, but the scope is wide and impressively steady. It could take days before you happen upon the goat curry buried in the back pages.
Uyen Thy Bistro
9039 Bolsa Ave., Suite 101, Westminster; (714) 898-9889.
Breakfasts, $3.95 to $6.50; appetizers and salads, $2.95 to $8.95; noodle dishes, $4.95 to $7.50; house specials and combination plates, $10.99 to $13.95.
Sunny-side-up eggs with pâté and ham, bo kho, braised duck noodle soup, ga roti, ca nuong la chuoi.
Open daily 6:30 a.m. to midnight. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted over $20.