Semi-vegetarian restaurant in OC
I'm in town for just a few days, staying near enough to Little Saigon to make nightly trips for Vietnamese food. Here's the thing, though. I'm a sort-of vegetarian in that I do eat shrimp once in a while and love using fish sauce but get sick from fish flesh, beef, chicken, or pork. So I'm looking for some recommendations of places that aren't necessarily vegetarian (I tend to fear strictly vegetarian restaurants, which often suck the joy right out of food) but have a good number of options that might suit my limitations.
Well, I don't know about semi-vegetarian, but I do love Vietnamese food and now that I'm vegan, it's been hard to get my fix. However, I will say that the new Loving Hut in Ladera Ranch (kind of far for you) has the best non-meat pho I've ever had, obviously not beefy tasting but it has the right depth, most sides that you would expect (bean sprouts, basil, jalapeno, lime, hoisin/rooster sauces) for about $8, which is pricier than regular pho by a dollar or so, but for me it is worth it to not have to see beef. Also, they have a shrimp dish that is really good. I love this one "lavar fillet" dish that is kind of spicy, tender, with a great sauce.
Also, if they have the chocolate fudge cake (slight cinnamon taste, with a nice light frosting that does taste a bit like tofu, but that's better than the horrible buttercream junk I usually have to deal with) and the carrot cake (great icing, and filled with walnuts, pineapple and grated carrots), I usually order that to go. Most vegan cakes suck donkey balls, but the baker here is really, really good. I'm very impressed by this particular Loving Hut (it's a chain). There's another one in Orange, but it was closed when I tried to go there and it didn't look as good as the Ladera Ranch one.
BTW, I used to be a very enthusiastic meat-eater, and I have not forgotten what things are "supposed to" taste like. I really can't stand those hippie granola types who enthusiastically praise every bit of organic cardboard they eat.
There's no reason in the world for you to go without if you're vegan. The Vietnamese have a long tradition of Buddhist cuisine which uses no animal flesh.
Au Lac is probably the best of the places to eat that sort of thing; S Fine Dining, while fancy and very expensive by Little Saigon standards, has a huge vegetarian menu if you but ask for it, and excellent vegetable kho (caramel-pepper clay pot stew), unbelievably good vegan spring rolls (cha gio chay) and a good rendition of tofu with mushrooms. There are at least another half-dozen places, including one that I'm forgetting the name of on Beach and McFadden-ish and at least a few on Bolsa. These places are regular restaurants that happen to have an all-vegetarian menu, rather than Putumayo In Restaurant Form.
To the OP, if you eat fish sauce and shrimp then you are good to go; you may end up eating different dishes in different restaurants but you can certainly easily avoid pork, beef, etc. Go to Vien Dong on Brookhurst and 13th and get the sweet potato and shrimp fritters; get bun tom nuong, which is rice vermicelli salad with grilled shrimp and tons of herbs. Go to Com Tam Thuan Kieu and order a broken rice plate with shrimp paste stuffed into tofu skin (dau hu ky) and grilled shrimp (tom nuong). Go to Xanh Bistro and have rice flake-crusted shrimp with plum sauce, banana flower salad (ask her to leave out the pork; unlike most Viet places, Xanh has fully English-speaking staff who are willing to customise) and shrimp, pumpkin and purple perilla soup. Go to Ngu Binh and have all kinds of sticky rice cakes with ground shrimp (you will want to know to avoid "thit", the word for meat).
Finally, these last two aren't even slightly Vietnamese but Veggie Grill in Irvine and Avanti Cafe in Costa Mesa are pure-vegan restaurants that don't dish out the self-righteousness and don't suck the joy out of dining.
(Be aware that some of the fake meat used in soi-disant vegan dishes may be very, very slightly dairy—do research online to see what other vegans have said.)
Don't be afraid of strict vegetarian! There is a wonderful restaurant on Brookhurst in Fountain Valley that is in the Little Saigon area. It is called Au Lac and it is in a little strip mall at Heil. It used to be popular within the neighborhood, but now their website recommend reservations! As a die-hard carnivore, I've been impressed with their food. It's a Vietnamese / Chinese mix and they have Vegan as well as a raw kitchen. Try it, you'll like it!
Many thanks for all the helpful suggestions. I am sitting in front of a takeout container of bun tom nuong from Vien Dong. I've had this dish before elsewhere but never with the subtle variety of flavors. What a great place!