Little Saigon is a town that I have lived in for a good part of my life. It has changed over the years as the residents start to assimilate with American culture and customs.
Orange County has the largest Vietnamese population in the United States. Santa Clara County has the second largest in Northern California. The Vietnamese community is a fairly new Asian community in the United States and the residents fled communist Vietnam for a better life. I, myself, was one of those immigrants. The core of Little Saigon starting to develop in the 1978 to 1981 along Bolsa Avenue between Newland St to Euclid St. It’s a 2.5 mile stretch of Vietnamese businesses.
The businesses have gone and left over the years. However, some of the staple restaurants have never left their original location or they just moved a few streets over. The grimy tables and signature terrible service has residents coming back; but, those characteristics come 2nd to the quality of the food. The immigrants’ children are starting to take over their parents’ businesses and the service has gotten better due to their ability to assimilate to American customs. They speak English and provide better customer service to non-Vietnamese customers.
In addition, the kids are opening up trendy restaurants of their own. They use social media to create a buzz that often leads to sales in their store. The trendy restaurants are often a fusion of different ethnic cuisines that the Vietnamese kids grew up on — Mexican, Korean, American, Japanese and Chinese. The Vietnamese foodie community is gaining steam while strategically using social media to garner attention.
In my opinion, the two largest Asian food communities per capita in Southern California would be Orange County’s Little Saigon and Los Angeles’ K-Town. Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Little Osaka, and Little Tokyo have been around for years, but they’re not as large as Little Saigon or K-Town in terms of density and options. The other notable areas would be East LA’s Monterrey Park and Hacienda Heights.
With that said, here are my Little Saigon’s must-eat institutions:
- Pho 79 – Pho 79 is a Little Saigon institution. They have a few locations in the Little Saigon and Los Angeles area, but the Brookhurst/Hazard location is where it started. They have been in business for over 25 years and I still remember coming here when I was a little fat kid with a bowl cut. The clear broth is on the sweeter side and isn’t too heavy. In addition, they provide the option of fat noodles and ox tail.
- Pho Song Hai – Pho Song Hai is a dirty little restaurant on Westminster and Newland serving the best Pho Ga in Little Saigon. It’s right across from the Westminster PJs. The restaurant is notorious for their wait time and the best way to get a taste of their Pho Ga is to order it to-go. The broth is served with fat noodles and chicken breast. The soothing broth is clear in color and slightly salted for taste.
- Quynh Huong – The little food-to-go shop is located on Magnolia/Westminster. It’s known for its egg rolls. The eggs rolls are savory and flavorful. The best time to get the egg rolls is in the morning around 7 when they come right out of the fryer. However, the other option would be to order 50 of them for a party.
- Brodard Restaurant – Brodard is probably one of the most popular restaurants in Little Saigon. It’s currently located on Brookhurst/Westminster behind the 99 cent store. The restaurant is known for its nem nuong; in other words, pork spring rolls. The juicy pork with fresh veggies along its famous sauce combine for a sweet, sour, and savory taste.
- Mi La Cay – Mi La Cay is another institution in Little Saigon. It’s a Cantonese restaurant serving egg noodles with locations throughout the area. The tables are old, sticky and the restaurant is pretty filthy. However, it could be arguably the best egg noodles in town. The firm egg noodles could be serve dry or wet depending on preference. The chewy egg noodles with its semi-salty but rich broth has people coming back through the years.
- Trieu Chau – The original Trieu Chau is located on Newhope and First in Santa Ana. Trieu Chau is known for its Hu Tieu (i.e., Mi Nam Vang). This location has been around as long as Pho 79. However, it’s grimy as hell. I mean it’s filthy and disgusting, but with most Asian restaurants, the food quality comes first. The pork broth has depth with its golden color and definitely nurtures any hangover. I’m sure the flavors are brought out by the MSG.
- Com Tam Tran Qui Cap – Com Tam (i.e., broken rice) is another staple dish in Vietnamese Cuisine. There are many options to choose from in the area but I always find myself going to Tran Qui Cap on Bushard and Bolsa Ave. The little shop is located in the corner of a strip mall. They offer an assortment of com tam choices with different types of proteins. In addition, their bun thit nuong is tasty. The thit nuong (i.e., bbq pork) comes in thin slices, charred on the outside, and perfectly marinated with soy sauce/fish sauce.
- Tai Buu – Tai Buu is a staple that moved a few streets over. The original location used to be behind 7-11 on Bolsa and Magnolia. Now, it’s located on Westminster between Bushard and Kerry St. The little Vietnamese French Bistro serves solid Banh Mi. The budget friendly restaurant serves a number of good dishes like its garlic butter steak with red rice, fried chicken and com bo luc lac.
- Ngu Binh – Ngu Binh is definitely in the running for best Bun Bo Hue in Little Saigon. The other being Saigon Deli, which is across the street. The restaurant is on Westminster and Magnolia and people line up before it opens to slurp on its spicy broth. The bowl comes filled to the rim with tender beef brisket and pork knuckles on top of the combination of spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavors of the dark broth creating an umami bliss.
- Saigon Deli – Saigon Deli is another Saigon institution. It’s on Westminster and Magnolia and notorious for its terrible service; however, people keep coming back for its bun bo hue. The broth is lighter in color and its spicier than Ngu Binh. It provides a kick to your palate with its cut up rice vermicelli; the cut up vermicelli makes it easier to enjoy the broth and noodles on the soup spoon.
- Thach Che Hien Khanh – Hien Khanh is one of three restaurants still in business since the mid-1980s in the vicinity. The other two being McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. It’s a testament to its quality. The place serves che and xoi, which is Vietnamese dessert and sticky rice, respectively. Hien Khanh offers a variety of che options with taro, corn, and mung bean. In addition, the average cost of each is $2 USD.
- Kim Su – Kim Su is another institution in Little Saigon. It was originally located in the same plaza as Trieu Chau, but they moved to a larger restaurant on Newhope and Bolsa. The Chinese family-style restaurant serves a number of great dishes on top of its dim sum in the morning. It’s one of the only places I go for dim sum cause they’re the only one that serves fried shiu mai.
- Saigon’s Bakery / Banh Mi Saigon – Saigon’s Bakery is the new kid on the block. It’s a small bakery on Westminster and Magnolia and they arguably have the best baguette in town. The baguette is made fresh daily and come warm out of the oven; they come in two sizes — round or long. The baguette are crispy on the outside but soft on the inside.
- Kang Lac – Kang Lac is another institution on Bolsa Ave. It’s on Bolsa and Kerry St tucked away in a corner of a little plaza. The bakery serves some of the best fruit cakes in town; in addition, they have a dine-in menu consisting of a fusion of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. It’s popular for its com bo luc lac, porridge and egg noodles. The egg noodles comes with the best whanh thanhs in town; their whanh thanhs are the closet in flavor to authentic whanh thanhs in Hong Kong I’ve encountered.
- Luc Dinh Ky 2 – LDK2 is a new kid on the block. How long have they been opened? I want to say close to 20 years. It’s a hub for the party-goers looking for a late night snack. They’re known for their egg noodles, porridge and rice dishes. The rice dishes come with different protein options, but the distinctive part of the dish is the burnt rice. They provide an outer layer of burnt rice to contrast to the softer side.
- Song Long – Song Long is slowly decaying in their little corner on Bolsa Ave. The restaurant started out as a bakery on Bushard and Bolsa Ave then opened a full brick-and-mortar restaurant in a narrow plaza next door. The French influence Vietnamese restaurant serves great Cha Ca Thang Long, Bun Cha Hanoi, and Banh Khot. However, Little Saigon is a town known for tasty food for cheap prices and Song Long’s slow decay is due to their higher prices.
- Thanh My – Thanh My is another Little Saigon institution and opened for more than 25 years. It has survived throughout the years even though it has experience gang violence on its door steps. People have been shot, stab, and beat down in their parking lot. However, it’s doors have stayed opened. They’re another late night option in the area and it’s right across from Luc Dinh Ky 2. The menu consist of the typical Vietnamese dishes like pho, com tam, hu tieu and bun but their Bo 7 Mon and Grilled & Wrapped Sampler is the best thing to get there.
- Favori – Favori has been opened for more than 30 years. The restaurant is a world away on First and Jackson in Santa Ana. The French/Vietnamese restaurant is known for its baked catfish. It’s a whole catfish baked served with rice paper and fresh veggies that you wrapped.
I wanted to highlight some of the restaurants in my hometown. The above list are the restaurants that started it all in Little Saigon and some have been opened for more than 30 years. These restaurants are institutions in the Little Saigon area and every new trend starter in the area has eaten at some, if not all, of the mention restaurants.
Let us know what you think of some of the restaurants in the comment section below!