Other chefs, specialists, work their entire lives perfecting a highly specific food: barbecue, birria, bread. There may be enough variables in pizza-making to occupy a diligent man for a lifetime; some Singaporean hawker-stall families have been making nothing but fish-ball soup for five generations. Japanese people go to one restaurant to eat hot noodles and another to eat them cool, one place for eel, a second for turtle and a third for herring.
But no people's restaurants are as specialized as the Vietnamese, for whom the phrase "dac biet," house specialty, practically rises to the level of a direct order. If you want charbroiled pork, you go to the place that advertises barbecued pork in the window; for spring rolls, the spring-roll place; for Hue-style dumplings, see the Hue-style dumpling man. Restaurants specialize in a single grilled fish, in bun or pho or banh cuon noodles, in seven-course dinners all of beef. And if you keep your eyes open, you might run across one of the new Vietnamese cafes specializing in . . . com tam, "broken rice."
Com tam (pronounced something like gum-dum) is a specialty of central and southern Vietnam, jagged bits of jasmine rice, accidentally shattered during the harvest or during processing.
"In Vietnam," says Vietnamese-food authority Mai Pham, "broken rice is a little cheaper than the best-quality jasmine rice; in the U.S., where it is available in most Asian markets, broken rice is actually a bit more expensive."
Com tam is one of the great Vietnamese working-class foods, the basis of a million plate lunches. You can still find entire streets in Saigon lined with com tam stalls, where for a few cents you can get a bowl of the broken rice garnished with shredded cucumber and chopped scallions steeped in oil, or perhaps a barbecued shrimp or a scrap of grilled pork.
The main drags of Vietnamese Santa Ana and San Gabriel have no shortage of com tam restaurants, but the best of them may be Thuan Kieu, a plain, storefront diner in a neighborhood of Vietnamese businesses recently arisen just east of the big San Gabriel mall. Thuan Kieu is crowded at the usual times - you will probably have to share a table at lunch - and bare, save its dozen Formica tables and some slogans painted on the walls. There is fresh orange juice, strong iced coffee and the usual mung-bean oozies to drink.
The menu may seem endless at Thuan Kieu, but what's listed are essentially variations on just a few things, a few noodle dishes plus broken rice with every imaginable combination of garnishes: broken rice with shredded pork, broken rice with shredded pork and baked egg, broken rice with shredded pork, baked egg and charbroiled shrimp . . . like that.
Banh hoi, little mats of ultra-thin rice vermicelli, come dressed with most of the same fried stuff that you can get with the broken rice; bun, thicker rice noodles, come tossed like big salads in bowls. There is a creditable version of the funky noodle soup called bun bo Hue, shot through with yummy lozenges of steamed pigs' blood. The pho noodles are fine.
But the thing to get here, inelegantly called "broken rice with seven kinds of foods," is a big platter heaped with broken rice and a bit of everything in the restaurant that you could wish to taste. (You can also design custom combinations to taste.) There are steamed balls of Vietnamese pate, bright-orange wedges of a sort of Vietnamese quiche flavored with ground pork, and charbroiled slices of beef or pork, slightly blackened at the edges, bubbling grease.
The platter also includes some of the best bi in town, shreds of roast pigskin tossed with herbs and ground rice, which has a slightly gritty characteristic that takes getting used to, but it flavors rice as nothing you've ever tasted.
Shrimp paste appears on the menu in several guises, wrapped around a length of sugar cane and grilled, stuffed inside rice paper and immersed in hot oil, or wrapped in a thin sheet of tofu skin and fried to a delicate crunch. Cha gio, spring rolls, are coarsely textured and seasoned hard with black pepper, not quite as good as the crisply fried cigars at Golden Deli, but serviceable.
Sometimes you'll run across grilled pork chops, marinated either in a five-spice mixture or plain - "Korean style," the menu says - with soy and garlic. Soft barbecued shrimp, dyed yellow with turmeric, are swell.
And the rice itself, cooked with a little less water than its unbroken equivalent, is spectacular, firmer, with a bouncy resiliency a little like al dente pasta, a thousand chewy, jagged shapes beneath your teeth. Its subtle, toasted nuttiness is as different from plain boiled rice as risotto is from Rice-A-Roni. Com tam may be the most elegant example of culinary salvage in the world.
123 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 280-5660. Open Sun.-Thurs. 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking in rear. Lunch for two, food only, $8-$14. Recommended dishes: barbecued shrimp; com tam with seven kinds of foods; bun noodles with shredded pork, spring rolls and barbecued pork.