Of all the well-documented marvels of the San Gabriel Valley, perhaps none has inspired as much devotion as the Vietnamese noodle shop Golden Deli, which has overflowed its mini-mall parking lot since the 1980s. It’s a sticky-table joint with an unmistakable scent: sweet, sharply garlicky, with faint overtones of fish sauce, roasted coffee and burnt spice. The cha gio, crackle-skinned Vietnamese spring rolls, are the size of a fat man’s thumb, and its version of the beef-noodle soup called pho is based on a particularly complex, cinnamon-scented broth. The banh hoi, vermicelli mats that you wrap into lettuce-leaf bundles with purple basil and bits of grilled meat, are softly bouncy, luscious.
When I ate at every restaurant on a stretch of Las Tunas for an L.A. Times article 15 years ago, Golden Deli was the place that I ended up returning to every week for years, and when I am out of town for more than a couple of weeks, I have been known to head straight to Golden Deli from the airport.
Several years ago, the Le family that runs Golden Deli opened a second restaurant across the street, Vietnam House, which served the same basic menu, and had a similar rushing-waterfall photomural, but added a few items more suited for an evening crowd, notably the set-price, seven-course beef dinners that had become a fad in Saigon. During the daytime, the two restaurants were substantially identical, like Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due in Chicago, with the original still drawing the brunt of the crowds and the newer, slightly fancier place handling the overflow. But the seven-beef dinners and the sophisticated grilled dishes made Vietnam House a different kind of restaurant, a place where you could imagine spending a quiet evening with wine instead of a breathtakingly garlicky half-hour.
But sometime in the last couple of years, the food at Vietnam House became mysteriously coarser, less delicious, and a lot of people I know stopped going. The proprietor Michael Le, whom I had seen at Golden Deli since he was a high school student — his parents founded the restaurant — seemed to be permanently absent: business differences, one heard. Golden Deli opened yet another noodle shop, Saigon Flavor, a few miles south near the big San Gabriel mall. Saigon Flavor was so close to the original that they didn’t even bother to print new menus for the restaurant. Saigon Flavor, too, had difficult parking and weekend waits that stretched over half an hour, but it was merely a second Golden Deli, a wonderful thing in itself, though without Vietnam House’s former refinements.
Six months ago, a noodle shop called simply Vietnam Restaurant opened a few blocks east of Golden Deli, tucked into one of those anonymous ’60s commercial buildings so common in that part of town, and I probably drove past it three dozen times before it registered as a new restaurant at all. Vietnamese food is not so hard to find in San Gabriel now, and the name of this place had none of the hallmarks by which good pho shops try to distinguish themselves in California: no numbers (Pho 79, Pho 54), no Saigon street names (Pho Pasteur), no ancient kings (Pho Nguyen Hoang). Inside, Vietnam gleamed in a most non-funky way: no photomural, no bright diner booths, no veneer of stickiness on the tables.
But there was Michael Le holding court behind the cash register, back in the noodle business, back with his delicious barbecued squid. There were the cha gio, platters of five burnished, bubbly deep-fried spring rolls at almost every table, right beside the giant herb plates — romaine lettuce, Vietnamese basil, rau ram, mint, purple basil, and a mysterious pennywort-shaped herb that tastes like fish. There were fragrant bowls of pho, not as intense as the pho at Golden Deli perhaps, but salted with lots of Jell-O-soft stewed tendon; and the noodle salad bun, tossed with shredded vegetables and cinnamon-scented grilled pork, cylinders of grilled shrimp cake peeled from stalks of sugar cane, or still more chagio. And there were tasty platters of barbecued squid, beef and shrimp, crisped at the edge and profoundly marinated.
Best of all, there was the return of the magnificent seven-beef dinner, a procession of sweet beef salad, beef wrapped in charred la lot leaves, ground beef baked with vermicelli into a crumbly meat loaf and grilled beef filets twisted into chewy cylinders, beef daubed with sweet satay sauce, and slices of beef that you simmer in a tabletop cauldron seething with boiling vinegar. The seven-beef extravaganza ends with big bowls of beef-laced porridge, which oddly enough is spiced like a Christmas cookie. This $12.95 feast is enough to feed two, for less than the price of a house salad at Mastro’s.
Golden Deli, 815 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 308-0803 or www.goldendelirestaurant.com. Open Sun. 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Mon., Tues., Thurs. 9:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri. 9:30 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.–10 p.m. (Closed Wednesdays.) Recommended ?dishes: pho, banh hoi, cha gio.
Saigon Flavor, 208 E Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 572-6036. Open Sun. 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Mon., Wed., Thurs. 9:30 a.m.–?9 p.m.; Fri. 9:30 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.–10 p.m. (Closed Tuesdays.) Recommended dishes: pho, banh hoi, cha gio.
Vietnam Restaurant, 340 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 281-5577. Open Sun. 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Mon.–Wed. 10 a.m.–?9 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–10 p.m. (Closed Thursdays.) No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $13–$16. Recommended dishes: barbecued squid, nem nuong, seven-course beef dinner.
Back in the kitchen: Michael and Hang Le.