If not for the dozens of banners advertising its Wednesday special of roasted catfish, Quan Ca My Van in Little Saigon would be nearly impossible to find. The restaurant is located in the rear food court of Saigon Supermarket, a sprawling warehouse filled with live fish, exotic vegetables and more variations on rice cake than you can shake a chopstick at. To locate the restaurant you first climb a set of stairs, then walk past an all-occasions portrait studio, an impromptu dance hall filled with aspiring teenage Biebers and a few other small Hue-style restaurants (including one that serves a pretty memorable banh cuon), until you reach the end of the hallway, where a neon blue sign reads Quan Ca My Van.
To start your meal, there is a spectacular salad of slivered, underripe mango tossed with sweet fish sauce, peanuts, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), onion and sweet char-grilled shrimp. The bánh xèo is one of the best we've ever tasted, an eggy crepe fried until its outer surface yields a pleasurable crunch, generously stuffed with sautéed bean sprouts, pork and shrimp.
You had better treat these as appetizers, though, because the proprietress fully expects you to order the specialty of the house, which is plastered all across the menu and cooked by her husband in the back in a large squat oven. This is cá nướng da giòn, a whole catfish splayed out onto a platter, lacquered with sesame oil, then roasted until its skin becomes fish chicharron and its snow-white flesh transforms into something tender and buttery. During your meal, a dozen or so families will shuttle back and forth picking up aluminum trays filled with catfish. Here cá nướng is the Vietnamese equivalent of those supermarket rotisserie chickens you pick up on the way home from work.
A bowl of lettuce leaves, mint, more rau ram, a pungent herb known as fish mint, shredded daikon and carrot, cucumber and, oddly enough, slivers of raw eggplant comes out first. Then a dish of unseasoned rice vermicelli called bun, some semi-transparent sheets of uncooked rice paper, and a clear half-moon vase filled with hot water arrives.
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When the fish finally appears, glistening and gleaming, dusted with chopped peanuts and scallions, you pluck a bit of skin and flesh from the bones and lay it on a sheet of rice paper that has been softened by a dip in hot water. You layer on a bit of vegetables and torn herbs, and perhaps a little bun if you're feeling starch-happy, roll it all up like a miniature burrito. The most glorious part comes when you dip your squishy, self-assembled gỏi cuốn (spring roll) into one of the two house-made dressings, nuoc mam me, fish sauce soured by a bit of tamarind, and nuoc mam nem, fish sauce sweetened with macerated pineapple, which might be the the two most bizarrely addictive condiments you'll ever find tableside.
Yes, Little Saigon is a considerable drive from Los Angeles. But when you're roaring back up the 5, reeking of fish sauce and cleaning bits of crunchy skin from between your teeth, you'll realize that you just enjoyed one of the greatest taste-to-price-ratio meals in recent memory. It's hard to quibble over extra mileage after something like that.
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