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Explorations on Brookhurst: Xanh, Fountain Valley

Little Saigon is a place incredibly rich in food that's simply not available in many other places. You're not going to find bo bay mon (7 courses of beef) in, say, Omaha. You won't have enough competition to be able to buy a sandwich for $1.75 in Boise. The flavours that come out of Little Saigon are some of my favourites -- Vietnamese is a beguiling cuisine.

What Little Saigon is short on is atmosphere. Your typical eatery on Brookhurst is a place where you sit down, are handed a functional menu, and expected to know what you want in five seconds while the waiter taps his pencil. Tables are usually Formica-topped, with the same carousel of sauces shoved over next to the napkin dispenser and the forest of cheap plastic chopsticks with ugly dragon prints on them. Food is sometimes deposited willy-nilly on the table for you to figure out and distribute (we call this "drive-by pho"), and when you're done, you're expected to go to the counter and pay.

There aren't very many "upscale" Viet restaurants in Little Saigon. I say "upscale" with inverted commas (which will probably get changed into double apostrophes) because there are no temples of Vietnamese gastronomy. There's Quan Hy, there's Brodard Chateau, and there's S Vietnamese Cuisine. None of these places are dress-up nice; they're just places with better service, some attempt at decor, and higher prices.

Xanh fits well into the upper echelon of these "upscale" places. It's not pretentious (hard to be stuck up when you're in the back corner of a strip mall featuring an Albertsons), but it is much, much nicer than your typical Brookhurst restaurant.

I met kingkong5 and two of my friends from UCLA who live in South OC to check it out.

While we gathered, I ordered a banana blossom salad (goi hoa chuoi, $7.95) for us to share. Banana blossoms are very astringent, so I was looking forward to seeing how the salad came out. What came out was a tangle of shredded magenta blossom, herbs, peanuts, and some poached shrimp cut in half. We had ordered it with no pork, since we're all Catholic and today is Friday. It was one of those dishes that makes me glad I learned long ago to eat with chopsticks -- trying to eat that with a fork would have been very challenging. The salad was very refreshing -- not at all astringent, though one of our dining companions added some nuoc cham to it to cut the sourness of the lime juice. When chef Haley Nguyen came over after dinner to see how we liked the food, I asked about the lack of astringency. She told us that she soaks the blossom shreds in lime water for quite a long time.

Dinner, which was served family-style, was a riot of different flavours. I don't remember who ordered what, but we ended up with kabocha squash and shrimp soup (canh bi ro tom, $8.75), seared white fish with green mango (ca chien xoai xanh, $13.95), fish in caramel sauce (ca kho to, $12.95), and lemongrass tofu (dau hu xa, $5.95).

The soup was thicker than most "canh" (broth-type soups) and was very, very earthy. I wish the kabocha had been just a little firmer, but that's me -- and the fact that it wasn't lent body to the soup, so I can't have it both ways, I suppose.

The seared white fish I loved. I love seared fish, especially when it's seared properly. You get that kind of "crust" on the side that's been seared and it's soft and flaky in the centre -- the fish was cooked just like a perfectly-seared scallop. It was set atop green mango (which was more like half-ripe mango in texture) and topped with fried onion strings. I didn't care about the onion strings, though they added a nice texture, but the mango and fish together was a real winner.

I'm a sucker for kho. It's part of those sweet-salty combinations that sound to American ears like they should be wrong... turkey in chocolate sauce (that's mole de guajolote to Chowhounds), chocolate with almonds and salt, and fish stewed in caramel sauce. You tell an American "caramel sauce" and he or she thinks ice cream topping... but this is a thinner sauce, meant to give beef (bo kho) or fish (ca kho) a rich flavour. The sauce was delicious -- chef Nguyen certainly is able to contain some of the more objectionable qualities (the caramel is very often cooked until it's bitter, but not at all in this case), but I think that I'd prefer it with a stronger-flavoured meat. The fish was well-cooked but all I tasted was the sauce.

The tofu was fried in long strips and tossed with soy (and, I assume, fish) sauce and lemongrass. It was very well-executed but was not as exciting as the other dishes. I'd order it again but I wouldn't go here for it. It was somewhat of the poor stepchild of our dinner order -- we didn't know it would be family-style when we started, so two of us tried to order the ca kho to. When we learned of the service style, I dropped the fish and went to the tofu.

After dinner, we ordered dessert. One coconut creme brulee ($5.95), one sponge cake with berries ($4.95) and one trio dessert -- chocolate souffle, ginger ice cream and lemongrass hot tea ($6.95). The sponge cake was quite good and moist, but I don't know if I'd order it again. The souffle was much better, though the hot tea felt a little like an afterthought -- the ginger ice cream, though, was incredible. The winner in the desserts was the creme brulee -- definitely tasted of coconut and was creamy and sweet without being cloying or, God forbid, gritty.

Xanh does not have a license, so liquor is strictly BYOB. We drank hot lemongrass tea (included), hibiscus tea (like a less-sweetened jamaica, $2.95) and soy milk with toasted rice ($2.95). They're trying to get one, but this always takes time.

Service was friendly, and I mean friendly by any standard, not friendly by Little Saigon standards. ("Friendly" service in Little Saigon usually means they're not throwing the food at you as they run past.) It's a smallish place, though with probably 40 seats. When we arrived a little before 7, the place was nearly empty, but by the time we left at 8:30, it was much more active.

This is a place I feel should be encouraged... a nice Vietnamese family-style restaurant, with good decor and good service, for what are still very reasonable prices (though, again, by Little Saigon standards, this is heinously expensive). You can bring a date to Xanh, where you really couldn't bring a first date to, say, Com Tam Thuan Kieu or Pho Thanh Lich. It's a family-friendly place (they have high chairs, it's not some museum-like hush), and the food is genuinely good -- and it fits a niche, because there aren't so many places for family-style dining in Little Saigon.

I intend to go back... and not on a Friday next time, because there were beef and chicken dishes I was aching to try. When I'm aching to try something, it's a good restaurant.

Xanh Bistro
16161 Brookhurst Street (corner of Edinger)
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(714) 531-2030

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  1. Do you happen to know what kind of fish they used in the two fish dishes you ordered? I do not eat catfish or similar fish for religious reasons. Does the menu have an explanation each dish or does it list dishes by name only?

    Sorry for the questions. I have been intrigued by the discussion on this board to give Xanh Bistro a try.

    6 Replies
    1. re: profhotsauce

      It didn't say (just "white fish") but you could certainly call and ask. English is definitely not a problem at Xanh the way it can be at other Little Saigon cookshops. The seared fish was most definitely not catfish and I don't think the caramel sauce was either (while I don't eat much catfish, my memory is that it's damn near impossible to fillet a catfish).

      Xanh isn't kosher, though -- so if that's the religious reason, you'll want to explain the requirements to them (assuming that you're not looking for a place with certification). They're very accommodating.

      1. re: Das Ubergeek

        Thanks. I do not go as far as requiring Kosher, but I grew up not eating catfish, crab, shrimp, and pork. I know it makes eating Vietnamese difficult.

        1. re: profhotsauce

          It doesn't have to. Just down the street is Au Lac, which is completely vegetarian (and almost vegan, except that some of their "meat" has whey in it). Pho, bun bo Hue, beef or chicken vermicelli bowls, bo kho, ca ri ga, several kinds of banh mi (sandwiches)... lots of Vietnamese food in your grasp. It's not like you object to fish sauce. :)

          1. re: Das Ubergeek

            How is Au Lac? I have a vegetarian friend who I would love to take to a Vietnamese restaurant. Is is good? Obviously they have to make major adjustments to make it vegan, but is it reasonably good? What is the atmosphere and service like? Do they serve alcohol?

            1. re: josephnl

              I haven't been in a while. There's a lot of soy-this and fake-that but also some really good stuff beyond fake meat. It's a little crunchy-earth-mothery vibe inside, but it's tasty stuff -- they don't suffer from the Real Food Daily problem ("spices might be vegan but we don't use them anyway").

              I don't think they serve alcohol, but I could be misinforming you. They have some kind of hippy-dippy "supertonic bar". I doubt it's alcohol.

              They have a website -- www.aulac.com -- check it out.

          2. re: profhotsauce

            It sounds like we have similar diets. I have been taken to a bunch of places in Little Saigon by my Vietnamese friends, both nice and hole-in-the-walls. I can't eat every dish, but I have never had a problem putting together a good meal, even in a group where everyone is sharing. Especially if you don't mind butter on the steak, another French Tradition that flavors Vietnamese cooking.

      2. Yes, Xanh is very good. The first time was great, the second there were a few bumps. It is a really good choice for a date because it is a little nicer than your average VN restaurant.

        I had the short ribs which were very good. My wife had noodles w/ fish and I thought the soup was very tasty. Unfortunately, the noodles were undercooked the second time we went. We both tried noodles and each dish had undercooked noodles.

        But it is nice inside, the people there are very friendly, and some dishes really stand out. The Green Mango Salad is fantastic, the Egg Rolls are also delicious. The chocolate souffle was a nice surprise, but the Bread Pudding didn't work (but had a really good Tamarind sauce).

        Please give them a try. I love a hole in the wall as much as anyone, but nicer restaurants are a welcome addition to Little Saigon. I've been to Vietnam many times and that is also a new trend. Even the people in Saigon want good food in a nicer atmosphere.

        1. Hey Das Ubergeek,

          Great review, as always! :)

          I've been meaning to try Xanh for the last 1.5 months. It should be noted for all CH'ers:

          * Xanh is Closed on Tuesdays.

          (I found out the hard way.)

          1. Thanks for the great review and update ! Sounds like you guys really ate up a storm. When Das Ubergeek and King Kong5 get together , everyone knows there's some serious eating going on!

            1. The white fish in question/discussion here is Orange Roughy. This particular fish cooks very well in pans or on grills.
              I like the food here. It's a departure from normal Vietnamese cuisine in that they put up a menu that boasts more items trending towards healthy living. I like most the sauces there. It's a good concept, a place where you can take a few friends to eat and linger. I also found out that a beer/wine license is imminent and a patio section is waiting to be approved by the city.