Sunday, August 30, 2009
Why tasting Little Saigon is much better with an expert; also, is Vietnamese dog any good?
Chef Danhi explains Vietnamese herbs.
When I saw the email inviting me to tour Little Saigon with chef Robert Danhi, at first I thought I was being invited to visit the real Saigon! But when I read the email more carefully and realized it was Little Saigon in Westminster, I figured the OC would be a lot easier to fit into my schedule. Chef Danhi, who wrote the James Beard-award nominated cookbook Southeast Asian Flavors, also gives culinary tours of Little Saigon, focusing on all three regions of Vietnamese cooking. I went along with several other food writers on a custom tour with Danhi Saturday, and learned a lot more about Vietnamese food than you'll get from just stopping by Golden Deli.
At our first stop, Lee's Sandwiches, we learned that their banh mi aren't the best to be had but their iced coffee is killer. Plus, it's a good place to pick up makings for your own sandwiches, like pate, shredded vegetables, and $1 baguettes.
Fresh crawfish at Thuon Phat market try to crawl right into the seafood boil mix.
Next up was Thuon Phat Market, an immense and immaculate supermarket, where a tour guide came in seriously handy. We started by sampling all the varieties of beef jerky at Vua Kuo Bo, including curry and barbecue.
With Danhi, you don't just get a cursory look at the cuisine -- we learned how to tell which fish sauce is the fishiest, which brand of condensed milk to avoid, and which brand of noodles are preferable. We also got an introduction to the huge variety of Vietnamese herbs like the nasty-smelling fish mint, la lop, pandan leaf, loksa leaf and fresh turmeric -- my new favorite is the lovely purple perilla.
Next, at Dong Phuong Tofu, we tried still-warm soymilk and freshly-made tofu.
Bun cha Hanoi -- barbecued pork patties and pork belly with rice noodles and condiments
Then it was on to Hanoi Restaurant. Chef Danhi demonstrated his recipe for shaking beef, then we tried the restaurant's specialties of pho, pork patties with noodles, square Hanoi spring roll and shrimp with fried yams. Our tour ended with a taste of Vietnamese yogurt, which is really creamy and perfectly tangy, but since it's made with sweetened condensed milk, is more of a dessert treat than a breakfast food.
Danhi's not Asian (he's been married to a Malaysian woman for 20 years), but his enthusiasm for the foods of Southeast Asia is contagious. You could do your own tour by following our itinerary, but I'd recommend one of his Little Saigon tours for anyone who wants to get a deeper understanding of Vietnamese food.
What else we learned: Which country serves the best dog?
Finally, you won't find any dog in Westminster, but yes, dog is served in Vietnam. Danhi favors Korean dog dishes over Vietnamese though. He has a philosophical approach to being a carnivore: "Once you take an animal's soul, what difference does it make what animal it is?" However, he qualifies, "I wouldn't eat my cat though, I love my cat."
See more photos from Little Saigon here.