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Explorations on Brookhurst: Vien Dong

Thursday night, as you may know, is Ubergeek Chowhound Night. Mrs Ubergeek stays up in the Valley for yoga and I go home and find something to try. We had an extra Chowhound Night this week because I didn't work late on Monday like usual. (I am somewhat of a creature of habit.)

I drove to work today, and didn't get to leave until 17.15, so it took me until almost 19.00 to get home and feed the dog. I was so hungry I was nearly cross-eyed, but I wanted to continue my Brookhurst meanderings.

"It's really not that far away," I told myself, "there will be no traffic on the 22."

I passed Super Bowl Teriyaki. "NO! You have been there." Taqueria Las Mulitas -- you could have food in like twenty seconds! "NO! We are GOING to BROOKHURST." Then I passed the sign for pizza at Niberino's and had to force myself not to turn round right in the middle of Ball Road. If there had been traffic through the Crush I think I would have cried.

Ten minutes after I got on the freeway I was sitting parked in front of Vien Dong restaurant as suggested by elmomonster. There were two people inside eating. Both looked like employees. My heart sank and I wondered whether he had played me false. Nevertheless, I screwed up my courage -- how bad could it be? -- and went in.

I sat down and a fork arrived. Damn it.

"We don't have pho."

"Toi khong muon pho. Mot it bun cha ha noi, chen ca phe sua da, chen nuoc." ["I don't want pho. An order of bun cha, a glass of iced coffee and a glass of water."]

"!"

The waiter retired and bawled the order into the kitchen. Two minutes later out comes a massive plate of spring rolls.

"Nononono... not cha gio, bun cha."

An old man comes running out of the kitchen, his Vietnamese so fast I couldn't catch it.

The waiter says, "My grandfather wants you to try his spring rolls, they are the best in Little Saigon."

"Thank you -- [wrap wrap dip munch munch] -- they're EXCELLENT." And they were. Made with rice paper, not with wonton wrappers, they had that crinkly skin that is the hallmark of true cha gio (or, since we're in a Northern Vietnamese restaurant here, nem ran).

By the time I was finished with the cha gio, the bun cha came out. A huge pile of herbs -- perilla leaf, mint, rau om (what is the name of this in English?), and of course lettuce. On another plate, banh bun (rice noodles). And then the pièce de résistance [piece of resistance], grilled pork and pork meatball patties, grilled just barely to char, swimming in green papaya fish sauce.

Now, the dilemma. How to eat it? If you try to roll it like cha gio, you will get food all over yourself. If you use the plate and bowl, you'll get fish sauce everywhere. I opted for the latter.

I put the first bite in my mouth and was overcome. The flavour was like nothing I've ever tasted. It was an explosion. I sat there, completely oblivious to the world, until the waiter tapped me on the shoulder to get me to move so he could set down my coffee.

"Good?"

"Oh, my GAWD."

I didn't care if I was eating it "right" (would anyone like to set me straight here?). I didn't care what went on in the world. I was oblivious to the random Vietnamese variety show blaring out of the television above me. When I next looked up, I found the entire restaurant was full -- and not a few people were watching me mow down the plate of food. I went up to the counter, paid ($7!!), thanked the old man (and the Japanese have nothing on the Vietnamese when they're bowing in thanks, my goodness) and left in a daze. It was... incredible. It was the best Vietnamese food I've ever had. They gave me a menu ("the prices are wrong but the food is right") and just reading it is making me drool.

As I headed home, my hands smelling of sauce and grilled meat, I passed Niberino's. I like Niberino's, don't get me wrong, but I'm so glad I passed it by tonight.

Thanks, elmomonster!

Nha Hang Vien Dong
14271 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
714-531-8253

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  1. You should've asked for an additional small bowl, chén to Southerners or bát to us Northerners. Did you get banh bun or banh hỏi, which is the extra thin vermicelli that is properly eaten with this dish? They might be the same thing, but I've always heard the extra thin vermicelli called banh hỏi. It's like Viet angel hair pasta. Anyway, I just put the vermicelli and all the accoutrements and sauce into the small bowl and eat small portions at a time and put more into the small bowl as I go. The dish is not meant to be eaten whole on a plate or a bigger bowl. Many Viet dishes are like this. They should've presented you with the additional small bowl unless it was just an oversight on their part.

    Congratulations on your epiphany!

    4 Replies
    1. re: hch_nguyen

      No, it was definitely banh bun, which was the size of regular spaghetti, but softer. It was still damn tasty.

      Good to know. There was a bowl -- I just didn't think anything of it which, in retrospect, was very stupid. Stupid white boy... ah well.

      1. re: Das Ubergeek

        Hmmm...I certainly don't know everything there is to know about Viet food, but in my family, I've always seen Bun Cha eaten with banh hoi. It's an extra thin vermicelli that is shaped into patties and topped with grilled chives. I included a picture. There certainly isn't any reason why you can't eat it with the traditional vermicelli or the banh bun you mentioned (which sounds a bit like the noodles in bun bo hue). Banh hoi is more like thread noodles and it adds a different dimension to the dish, sort of like the way broken rice does to a dish vs. traditional white rice. As you bite into banh hoi, the packed threads unravel and fall apart in your mouth and is part of the appeal of it.

        http://www.flickr.com/photos/yamada3/...

        Oh, you can also wrap the noodles and meat and other stuff in a whole leaf of lettuce and eat it like a roll. People do that, too. It requires a little technique.

        1. re: hch_nguyen

          It was bundled, but it definitely wasn't quite as thin as your photo. When I put sauce on it, though, the whole thing practically flew apart -- it was weird.

          1. re: Das Ubergeek

            Banh hoi is very intricately woven into a patty (not a bundle) and will not fall apart like that when topped with sauce. It only softens a bit (although I wouldn't say it's hard at all) and comes apart only minimally. Banh hoi is steamed instead of boiled like most vermicelli and therefore retains its shape and is drier and a bit less flexible than most cooked vermicelli

            Maybe that's just how they do Bun Cha at that particular restaurant. Now that I think about it, banh hoi can be eaten with various items, in this case Bun Cha, but is not necessarily part of Bun Cha itself. Just like you can choose the kind of pasta you want with your sauce at an Italian restaurant. There's no hard and fast rule as to what goes with what, but there are some generalizations (like Linguine with Clam Sauce or Spaghetti with Meatballs), but again it's not a rule. I think in my family, we always opted for banh hoi with Bun Cha so I always made the association.

            I think they just gave you "traditional" bun, which is a medium vermicelli (like the one eaten with bun thit nuong). Assuming you'll go back, ask them if they will serve you with banh hoi instead if you're interested. If you enjoyed it the way it was, then that's all that matters. I'm sure they will accommodate you if they can. There might be an additional charge for the banh hoi if it doesn't normally come with it.

    2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And I loved, LOVED, your review.

      I was introduced to Vien Dong by a fellow food blogger named Wandering Chopsticks. There, finally, FINALLY I find my long-coveted bowl of bun rieu oc there...and it's in a bowl so huge, I barely finish it.

      http://elmomonster.blogspot.como

      1. I know this post is nearly a year old... but I needed to add. Today I wanted something light and fresh so we went to Vien Dong, where I was seduced by the new addition on the menu of a bowl of bun cha ca thanh long -- grilled turmeric-laden fish with dill and onions, over rice noodles and lettuce and herbs, with nuoc cham.

        Wow.

        Just... WOW.

        You look at the crust on the fish and you think, "Ugh, it's been killed twice, once when fished and once when grilled..." but it's not true. It's actually a very moist fillet that flakes so much they give you a spoon. And dill -- man, I want dill in every single bowl of bun I eat from now on! It lent a great dimension to the dish, and the onions were grilled just enough to be sweet. I loved it, and my daughter practically inhaled the piece of fish I fed her a bit at a time.

        It's one of the more expensive items on the menu at $7.50, but it's hard to complain about a gigantic bowl of fresh, light, healthy food for that price. And it's cheaper than the whole plate of cha ca thanh long ($12.95 for the "small" or $15.95 for the "large" -- the small is plenty), where you have to assemble it with the banh hoi yourself.

        Mrs Ubergeek had her standby of bun cha gio thit nuong (rice noodles and lettuce and herbs with Imperial rolls and grilled pork) and I stand by my assertion that Vien Dong has the best grilled pork in Little Saigon -- it's smoky and tender and begs for a little bit of nuoc cham to moisten it, at which point it's delicious.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Das Ubergeek

          I tried Vien Dong for the first time on Saturday. Boy, was it good! I tried the jackfruit salad, and the seafood rice congee. The jackfruit had a lovely texture, and fish sauce that came with it was delicious, especially when you layer the salad on top of the rice crackers, using it as a base to soak up the sauce. The congee had a plethora of flavors too, every spoonful had a different layer of taste, each one more comforting than the next. Loved the iced coffee too. I am going back there this weekend to try the turmeric fish. Thanks to Das Ubergeek and elmomonster for the heads up on this place!

          1. re: Das Ubergeek

            The bun cha ca thanh long is nirvana or manna from heaven (choose your religion).

          2. Are there any Vien Dong equivalents closer to L.A.? I can't get down to OC as much as I used to. Thx!