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Apr 16, 2007 08:07 PM

Explorations on Brookhurst: Com Tam Thuan Kieu

Ask your typical fairly worldly Southern Californian to describe Vietnamese food, and your chances are high that they'll talk about pho (beef noodle soup) and bun (rice vermicelli salads). If you're on Chowhound you might hear about banh mi (sandwiches), bun bo Hue (Hue-style beef soup) or bo bay mon (beef seven ways).

Rarely do you hear about com tam, which translates to "broken rice", but it's a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, has its roots in the cuisine of poverty, is on pretty much every Viet menu in the area, and I've yet to see a non-Asian eat it.

Also, as all good L.A. Chowhounds know, one ignores the mini-mall, that oft-mocked symbol of LA, at one's peril. Some of the best food in the city is located in mini-malls. As I headed for my night's destination, I passed a place called Lo Cha Lua. "Hm," I thought, "I'll eat half of my com tam and then go try the cha lua, and have the leftovers for lunch."

Com Tam Thuan Kieu, is one of those gems in a boring mini-mall in a forgotten corner of a dirty section of Little Saigon. The decor -- well, there isn't much of it. Four tables on each side and communal bench-type seating running up the centre. Walk in and sit down, it doesn't matter where. If it's busy you can ask to share a table with someone already sitting.

The menu looks like absolutely every other Vietnamese coffee-shop type menu, except that the appetisers are listed first instead of relegated to the back near the drinks, and there's no pho. The place of honour usually reserved for the various types of beef noodle soup is taken up by two and a half pages of variations on broken rice plates.

It's obvious that most people order one of the two "seven types" plates, which are the most expensive things in the section at $8.50. I, however, was not about to order that much food since the prospect of steamed ham with rice wrappers to follow was commanding me to eat relatively lightly.

I ordered a combo (#35, $5.95) of a mere four items, then: bi (shredded pork), cha (a kind of quiche with pork, glass noodles, vegetables and spices bound up in eggs), tau hu ky (tofu stuffed with shrimp paste and fried) and lap xuong (sweet Chinese sausage). I also ordered da chanh, which is generously translated as "lemon drink" but is in fact limeade with waythehellandgone too much sugar in it. ("Gack!" I thought. "I can't drink this!")

In about ten seconds a bowl of soup was set in front of me. I've eaten com tam before and I know that it is not an appetiser -- it's set out there first because it's bloody hot as hell and would scorch your innards if you drank it). Ten seconds later a bowl of nuoc cham (sweetened garlic fish sauce) with lily bulbs and carrots floating in it came out. And maybe a minute later my food came.

It was enormous. It was the Tai Shan of com tam. I can't imagine what the full-on seven-item one would look like. There was a chunk of tau hu ky the size of a deck of tarot cards, a wedge of cha not much smaller, a veritable mountain of bi, and two entire lap xuong sausages cut into wedges and glistening with sugar and grease, all atop a huge pile of broken rice, with what looked like fully half an English cucumber and a big pile of pickled radish and carrot.

"Damn," I thought, "this is a lot of food."

The way to eat com tam is this: pour the nuoc cham over the plate, except for the vegetables. Then grab one of the Thai bird chilies that's in a bowl near the forks and spoons (no chopsticks for com tam). Eat some of the garnish with some of the rice, then take a bite -- a VERY VERY SMALL bite -- of the chili. It is mind-numbingly hot. Swallow. Have a bit of the soup -- even though it's still steaming, it will cool off your mouth. Repeat, alternating with bits of cucumber, which cut through the entire flavor party like a dip in a cold pool. You can skip the chili pepper if you absolutely must, but if you don't eat it, things will get too sweet very quickly. If you're not a heat lover, you must learn to eat chilis the right way: nibble off a tiny tiny bit (the kind of bite you took as a kid when your mother told you you weren't leaving the table until you tried whatever it was), and swallow. Do not chew! Try the peppers -- they lend a necessary dimension to the dinner.

The food was incredible. The rice is an unusual texture for those who are familiar with Asian food. It's not very sticky at all, because the breaking is uneven, thus it's a bit like having short-grain and long-grain rice together.

The lap xuong was just perfect, with the right amount of snap. The bi was its usual self -- a bit dry and powdery, which is an odd description of meat but it fits perfectly. The tau hu ky was tender and not at all greasy, and the cha -- wow, I wanted an entire pan of cha to take home and eat for breakfast. The idea of cha lua went right out the window -- I'll try it another time -- and I just slurped and nibbled and munched my way through the whole plate. I'm so ashamed of myself.

Remember that toothachingly sweet limeade I ordered? It went PERFECTLY with the com tam and the peppers. I went through three peppers, which made the waiters look at me in quite a different light and they refilled my limeade for free.

Service was exactly what it always is in places such as this... no-nonsense. Tell them what you want, then when you're done walk to the counter and pay. Leave a tip on the way out. Don't overtip. My com tam was $5.95, the limeade was $1.85, plus tax and tip was a total of $9.50. Cash only, like so many places in Little Saigon.

Mrs Ubergeek is at her yoga class (yes, even eight-plus months pregnant, she still does regular yoga) in Burbank, so she missed out -- but we will definitely be back. It was delicious.

And now I can concentrate on the cha lua place a block north with a clean heart.

Com Tam Thuan Kieu
14282 Brookhurst St. #2
Garden Grove, CA 92643
(714) 531-4852

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  1. Definitely a great place, though I actually prefer the location on Valley Blvd better (I'm in the Garden Grove area more often, though).

    If I had discovered Vietnamese food when I was college, I would never have bought instant ramen or Starkist. Such a tremendous amount of good food per unit dollar.

    1. I love broken rice cooked with all the accoutrements over a flame in a clay/metal pot better known as Com Tay Cam. The edges get charred and everything has a smoky taste. I think Luc Dinh Ky has it, but I've never had it there, and I'm not sure if they actually use the requisite broken rice. Many of the Viet dishes that traditionally come with broken rice are instead served with standard jasmine rice to maximize convenience and minimize cost. The broken rice makes a world of difference just from its texture alone...pretty amazing....

      1. I've been there recently and like it too. I've heard there is another place off Harbor near the Lee's Drive Thru (north of GG Blvd.). Anyone heard or been there yet?

        1. I just put a post on com tam on my blog and doing some research on it, found this oldie but goodie post. Can you explain more about cuisine of poverty aspect?


          6 Replies
          1. re: hppzz

            When you polish rice (remove the bran), some of the pieces are broken. The people couldn't sell broken rice, so it's what they ate. All the perfect rice was sold and the ricegrowers ate the leftovers. It's topped with whatever is available, and some fish sauce.

            1. re: Das Ubergeek

              aahh...didn't think about that. I was niave to assume that it was something always associated with suon, bi, cha trung hap..etc. I wonder if that's that's a southern thing as north vietnam is typically much poorer. I'm going to include this edit on my com tam post on my blog-- thanks!!


              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                Funny thing, or not so funny . . . i live in San Francisco, used to live near GG. Here in SF we have a very high end Vietnamese restaurant called Slanted Door which i'm sure many down south have heard of. Funny that the first time I ever had that particular type of "cuisine of poverty" - broken rice - was at this fancified Vietnamese place far from Little Saigon. They sell it packaged to cook at home too - at a pretty penny, as i remember. Love the stuff. Parents live in GG area still, and will be visiting this weekend, so i'm really intrigued about trying Com Tam Thuan Kieu on Brookhurst!

                1. re: mariacarmen

                  Even though it was might have been the 'cuisine of poverty', there are some nice Com Tam restaurants in Vietnam. People like to eat comfort food and broken rice is very easy to digest. I think it makes sense that a nice restaurant would serve their take on broken rice. Just as they might do their own take on claypot fish or something like that. We love to eat broken rice at Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa on Valley Blvd. Broken Rice w/ a pork chop, sour pork and pork patties cooked in a banana leaf is my idea of Pork Heaven. All for under $6.

                  There is a restaurant in Saigon (Com Neiu Sai Gon) that serves their rice that is cooked in a clay pot (pre-fancy rice cooker). The rice gets burned at the bottom and they pour sauteed green onion on top. In order to get the rice, they have to break the pot and the server tosses it over to the waiter and he catches it. It is a bit gimmicky, but very delicious. I wish somebody in LA/OC would serve rice like that. This place is apparently one of Anthony Bourdain's favorite restaurants. I know it is mine.

                  1. re: bsquared2

                    you can replicated the clay pot rice at home. I use one of the korean pots they use for soon du boo and the crispy rice at Luc Dinh Ky. Heat it on the stove and then place you cooked rice...continue to med high heat for about 5 min or so, flattening down the rice and you'll get nice crispy golden brown rice on the bottom.

                    I love the pork custard and just got that recipe from mom. here's my mom's recipe for com tam suon bi trung cha hap

                    1. re: hppzz

                      But at home my wife won't break the pot and throw the rice across the room (I've already asked her).

                      Personally, I think anything cooked in a clay pot rocks. I had amazing chicken and rice cooked in a clay pot at a KL Foodcourt for $1.50. That was a good lunch. We often eat Claypot Pork and Fish. We even tried Turkey, which turned out really well.

            2. Glad you enjoyed - next time, get the thit nuong (grilled pork) also - it's better than the suong nuong (grilled pork chop) here - it's very good. I usually get tau hu ky, thit nuong, cha gio (egg rolls - they have two variations, a shrimp eggroll and the traditional meat eggroll), bi and cha. Also, the nem cuong here is probably my favorite in all of Little Saigon. I much prefer it to Brodard's.

              There's another location on Bolsa and Magnolia that I prefer. It's a few doors down from Che Cali, so you can stop in for che khoai mon (the only thing I get from Che Cali, as opposed to Hien Kanh) - and Van's Bakery is down a few doors the other way.