Quan Vy Da restaurant in Westminster specializes in cuisine from the central… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)
It's just before the dinner rush at Huong Giang, a central Vietnamese restaurant in Westminster's Little Saigon, and dozens of dim-sum-like dishes obscure our tabletop. Chopsticks eagerly reach for fat little shrimp-filled dumplings and impossibly tender rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. We pass around silver dollar-size rice pancakes topped with pork cracklings and nibble on Vietnamese cold cuts swathed in freshly steamed rice noodle sheets as airy as chiffon.
These small bites may have the feel of new wave dim sum or the latest Asian-influenced gastropub, but they belong to the legendary cuisine of central Vietnam -- the most sophisticated of the country's three major culinary regions -- whose capital city, Hue, enjoys the cachet of Paris, Rome or Shanghai among Vietnamese food lovers. Intricate and labor intensive, its dishes are known for their complex garnishings and multiple layerings of sweet-savory tastes.
Still, while Southern California's pho emporia and banh mi shops have basked in the foodie limelight, the central Vietnamese restaurant scene has remained a small, quiet niche, unfamiliar to a wide audience. But the recent surging popularity of bun bo Hue, the region's spicy beef and pork noodle soup, has helped put the genre into expansion mode.
Two well-loved places in Westminster, Ngu Binh and Quan Vy Da, have gone from holes-in-the-wall to stylish dining rooms. Meanwhile, Huong Giang's owner, Nga Thi Bich Nguyen, who also owns two central-Vietnamese-style delis, recently opened Huong Vy, her most ambitious, upmarket project to date. And newcomers Hue Oi and Tay Thuong have also thrown their fortunes into the mix.
It's easy to understand this food's allure when you tuck into Huong Giang's com hen, or baby clam rice. Tossed with tart green apple slivers and a dizzying bouquet of fresh minced herbs, its bright flavors and textural contrasts jolt the senses as much as anything you might have had at LudoBites. Garnishes of roasted peanuts, caramelized shallots, sesame seeds and crispy banh da -- puffy rice crackers used to scoop up bites -- lend crunch and pop and a shalloty sweetness that sends a flood of flavor across the palate.
Nowadays this bowl of modest splendor might set you back around $6. But in the early 19th century, when Vietnam's last dynasty ruled in decadence from Hue, it would have been strictly reserved for an extravagant aristocracy.
The emperors demanded 50-course meals that couldn't be repeated within the year. At some point, the cooks' creativity trickled down to the hoi polloi, turning Hue into the food mecca we know now.
Even today, walking the streets of Da Nang, Hoi An or Hue, you'll see street vendors balancing long shoulder poles holding cookware and baskets. They'll sell a specific charcuterie or banh (as central Vietnam rice cakes and dumplings are called) that they, or perhaps their parents or even grandparents, perfected.
Westminster has no such vendors but is rife with delis known for snacky foods and banh. People buy the delicacies by the trayful for parties and family gatherings.
But diners eat in at Nguyen's newer restaurant Huong Vy, with its bistro ambience, stylized tropical decor and expanded offering of entrees. It's thrilling (and rare) to see banh khoai on any menu. The crispy, airy shells of pounded rice, which look a little like fried taco shells, require substantial skill to make. Filled with shrimp, pork and vegetables, they're delicious as is or wrapped in lettuce and herbs and dipped in the accompanying sweet-salty-fruity sauce. Banh it ram, another tour de force, combines chewy balls of warm shrimp-and-pork-filled mochi, each perched on a puffy silver-dollar-size, deep-fried rice cakelet. Every bite merges soft, springy and briny sensations -- a textural ta-da!
No one makes Vietnamese charcuterie -- various sausages and meat loaves -- like Nguyen's shops and restaurants. Her cha the Hue, with a texture like mortadella, or the more highly seasoned, coarser nem Hue have the pure meaty taste and hand-formed texture of home cooking rather than the over-processed feel of similar supermarket products.
The most amazing of these meats, translated as "Huong Giang's special periwinkle ham" on the menu at Huong Giang, is a smooth pork sausage incorporating tiny flecks of the minced mollusk formed around a stalk of lemon grass and ginger slivers before it's steamed. The delicate, slightly chewy meat with faint seafood overtones would command three times its $5.75 price tag in trendier neighborhoods.
Not to miss here is the mind-blowing jackfruit noodle salad or mi quang, turmeric-colored rice noodles in a rich curry-like sauce under a dozen or so embellishments.