The best food in Vietnam is found not in Michelin-approved establishments but on dirty street corners, where stray dogs linger at your feet carefully gnawing at scraps. Each tiny street stall will most likely specialize in one single dish; maybe bánh mì, maybe pho. That stall’s dish has inevitably been perfected, perhaps with a recipe passed down multiple generations. There are only a few places in the world where people obsess over food to the degree they do on the streets of Hanoi.
The San Gabriel Valley doesn’t have America’s best Vietnamese street food, and, for the most part, even Southern California’s – you can find better in Westminster’s Little Saigon, where Vietnamese restaurants stretch out ad infinitum. But it’s where L.A. County’s best Vietnamese food is, and that Vietnamese is satisfying at worst and damn good at best.
Here's a guide to some of Vietnam’s best street dishes and where to find them in the vast expanse of the SGV.
These days, everyone has at least heard of pho, the fragrant noodle soup that’s advertised on lit-up signs in almost every area where Vietnamese happen to eat. Vietnamese like it for breakfast as a way to rouse the senses — iced coffee and pho is a potent combination — but here it’s become a sort of Vietnamese equivalent to pad Thai, in that it’s familiar (but still attractively exotic), imminently edible and comforting on cold nights. American college students are beginning to eat pho ga when they’re sick, not whatever chicken soup their grandmother gave them.
The Vietnamese food available in America is usually the cuisine served in Southern Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh City — formerly Saigon — is, and where Vietnamese supported the American war effort. But most pho buffs prefer the Northern version served in Hanoi, pho bac, where the flavors are simpler but still pronounced.
Where: It seems you can find half-decent pho almost anywhere, but L.A. has no definitively better bowl of Northern pho bac than the ginger-infused rendition served at Pho Filet, a restaurant located in a thin strip mall in South El Monte. The stretch of Garvey Avenue where Pho Filet holds fort has more great Vietnamese food packed into it than what’s available in some U.S. metropolitan areas. It’s a crowded place, but you can always head to the second branch, the aptly-named Pho Filet 2, in Rosemead. For pho ga — the lighter chicken soup — head to Pho Ga Bac-Ninh. Pho Filet: 9463 Garvey Ave., South El Monte; (626) 453-8911. Pho Ga Bac-Ninh: 605 N New Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 288-1448.
Bánh cu?n translates to “rolled cake.” And it is, essentially, a tiny burrito, a wrapping of thin pillows of rice sheets filled with ground pork and tiny dices of wood ear mushroom. The first time you encounter it will be a revelation. Its closest culinary relative? Probably Cantonese cheong fun, the universally loved rice noodle rolls served on dim sum carts. In the Old City of Hanoi, you’ll see bánh cu?n rice batter being steamed on sidewalks above little tubs of heated water. They’ll be delicately folded and handed to you about six at a time, and it’s absurdly easy to eat a couple dozen of the things.
Where: Bánh cu?n is a food that’s often hidden deep in the menus of a lot of the Valley’s restaurants, and it’s not hard to visit a restaurant like Hoa Binh several times before noticing it. With the recent closure of Banh Cuon Tay Ho, the closest thing the SGV has to a specialist is Banh Cuon Hai Nam Saigon. Hai Nam Saigon: 1425 E Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 300-8079.
In Vietnam, as in much of Asia, a true meal is always served with rice. Anything else is, apparently, merely an accompaniment, a snack, or breakfast, no matter the quantity or caloric intake. C?m t?m is Vietnam’s quintessential rice meal, a thing you eat when you’re mindlessly hungry and need to fill your belly, much like Japan’s bento or Hawaii’s plate lunch.
The dish is founded on what the Vietnamese call “broken rice,” a cheaper grade often produced as an after-effect of the milling process. The grains are a little smaller and tougher than the rice you’re used to, sort of like couscous, but the Vietnamese employ the smaller particles as a kind of sauce absorbent. The rice can be accompanied by seemingly anything (or at least anything that used to be alive), usually pork and shredded pork skin, but also fresh greens, pickles and a light soup.
Where: L.A.’s resident c?m t?m specialist is Com Tam Thuan Kieu, which has branches in both Westminster and San Gabriel. If you're immensely hungry, or if there are more than one of you, there's a c?m t?m special that comes with 10 items, where “items” refers to various animal parts employed in different ways: fried spring rolls filled with minced pork, the wacky fermented sausage called nem chua, a few pieces of pig’s skin, some sweetened shrimp, inoffensive grilled pork, and even a slice of French-inspired quiche. It's as good a way to spend $12 as any. Com Tam Thuan Kieu: 120 E Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-5660.
A sandwich is a simple thing, but it doesn't really exist in the East the way it does in the West. There are variations, of course – sample Northern China's version of a hamburger at Shaanxi Gourmet – but nothing that really resembles the sandwiches served at, say, Bay Cities in Santa Monica. Except for bánh mì. Somewhere down the line, some French colonialist introduced the wonders of a fresh baguette to an intrigued Vietnamese cook, who in turn introduced bánh mì to the world as the perfect marriage between the vaunted French pâtissier and the humble Vietnamese street vendor. Delightful.
There are differences in standards between the French baguette and the ideal Vietnamese bánh mì – proper bánh mì is a bit more airy, with crust that's a tad thinner – but otherwise most of the principles behind a good sandwich were adopted. Bánh mì can have a wide range of things inside it, depending what culinary region of Vietnam is being used as inspiration, but the most common are fried eggs, grilled meat, and interestingly mysterious liver pâté. Then there's the requisite added crunch: cucumber, carrots, often daikon.
Where: If you're on the Westside, many are fond of the version at Buu Dien and Starry Kitchen (whenever they opt to make them). In San Gabriel, the bánh mì king is probably Banh Mi My Tho, though some prefer Baguette City, Tip Top's Sandwiches, or Saigon's Bakery. Banh Mi My Tho: 304 W Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 289-4160.
Bánh Bèo, Bánh B?t L?c, Bánh Ram It
There's a theory among food scholars — there are such people — that almost all the finer elements of cuisine have developed, one way or another, from haute cuisine. In other words, at some point in time, very rich people sponsored the chefs that created the foundation for not just the latest buzzed French restaurant or Hong Kong banquet room but also your neighborhood gastropub.
It's not necessarily always true — we're talking about street food, after all, where one Vietnamese grandmother in Hoi An can accidentally invent a noodle dish that goes on to become a street staple — but one of the world's clearest examples of the theory is the cuisine found in the formerly imperial city of Hue, where much of everything sold on the street was developed by hungry emperors who refused to eat the same dish twice in the same year.
The emperors in question demanded huge, multi-course meals. Once again, nothing could be repeated in the same year. That resulted, incidentally, in the development of a varied and complex cuisine. Some of that imperial food trickled down to the peasants, and you can find those dishes on the streets of Hue (pronounced “hway”).
There's bánh bèo, the tiny circular rice cakes garnished with ground shrimp and fried pork fat, which has found its way into the mainstream in Los Angeles. Less common are bánh ram ít and bánh b?t l?c, the former a crispy fried rice cracker layered with a bulbous mass of steamed rice dough, the latter a sort of clear pork and shrimp dumpling steamed in a banana leaf.
Where: If you truly want to eat like an emperor, it's best to go to Westminster, where restaurants like Quan Vy Da serve a varied Hue-based menu. The only real Hue-style restaurant in the SGV is Kim Hoa Hue, where you can even get a Hue sampler plate. Many restaurants serve bánh bèo; the best may be at Summer Rolls, formerly known as Nem Nuong Nimh Hoa, which is famous for its nem n??ng sprill rolls (described below). Kim Hoa Hue, 9813 Garvey Ave., El Monte; (626) 350-1382. Summer Rolls (formerly Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa), 9016 Mission Dr., Rosemead; (626) 286-3370.
Bún Bò Hu?
People inevitably pick dishes that become their kind of arbitrary litmus test for a new restaurant – a burger for a gastropub, pad kee mao for a new local Thai spot, dan dan noodles at a new Sichuan joint. While pho is a common a choice for Vietnamese, it seems L.A.’s food nerds are increasingly turning to bún bò Hu? as their go-to barometer.
Bún bò Hu? — which originated, as you might guess, in Hue — is Vietnam's ode to the pig. The broth is flavored by a pig's neck bones. One way or another, there will be pork, maybe remnants of knuckle meat, hidden in the murky depths of your bowl. The conspicuous pig's hoof, from whence that meat came, is not so well hidden. There's also that solid cube of coagulated pig’s blood floating above your rice noodles like an ominous iceberg.
You'd think the liquid would smell a little funky, but the soup is surprisingly aromatic, enhanced by a perfume of lemongrass, mint, thinly sliced raw onion and a few dollops of garlic.
Where: Finding a good bowl of bún bò Hu? in the SGV is surprisingly challenging given its near ubiquity on Vietnamese menus. If there’s anything close to a consensus, it would be the version served at Nha Trang, the noodle specialist named after the coastal city in Central Vietnam. There are a few branches of the restaurant, which exploded in popularity following in its initial opening, so you can slurp Nha Trang’s well-executed noodle soups in San Gabriel, Monterey Park or Alhambra. Nha Trang: 742 E Garvey Ave, Monterey Park; (626) 288-8825. 311 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel; (626) 572-7638. 417 W Main St, Alhambra; (626) 588-2833.
Bún Ch? Hà N?i
Most who frequent Vietnamese restaurants are familiar with the section of Vietnamese menus labeled bún. Usually you'll be presented with a rather tall bowl filled to the brim with the flimsy, stark white rice noodles called vermicelli (or bún). On the bottom of the bowl there will be lettuce, carrots, cucumber and various other crunchy things that are probably good for you. Above the noodles will be meat, maybe grilled pork, maybe ch? giò, the fried spring rolls described below. You're told to put chili and n??c ch?m — the sweet dipping sauce that's at every Vietnamese dinner table — on the whole thing and mix it thoroughly.
Most varieties of bún are predictably delicious, but in Vietnamese cooking, the bún family, much like the bánh family, is more varied and sophisticated than you might expect. The best member may be bún ch? Hà N?i, which is served on the streets of Hanoi. This bún is not served in a tall bowl but is instead presented with its various components separated, a sort of Vietnamese tsukemen. You're given vermicelli noodles, fresh greens, and sweetened grilled pork patties soaked in n??c ch?m.
Where: Hoa Binh, which is also located in South El Monte, just down the street from mainstays Kim Hoa Hue and Pho Filet. Hoa Binh: 9911 E Garvey Blvd., El Monte; (626) 279-2979.
If you're in Central Vietnam, nearly every street will have at least one vendor selling noodles, and your options will nearly always be (at least) bún bò Hu? and mì qu?ng. Mì qu?ng has a devoted following in Quang Nam Province in Central Vietnam, where it originated, but the dish is served throughout the country. The components? Rice noodles — turned yellow with turmeric – and pork shoulder, shrimp, garlic, paprika, fish sauce and the Vietnamese rice cracker called bánh tráng me.
Where: Once again, a discussion of Vietnamese noodles in the San Gabriel Valley always revolves around the same spot: Nha Trang. Nha Trang: 742 E Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 288-8825. 311 E Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 572-7638. 417 W Main St., Alhambra; (626) 588-2833.
It's easy to think of bánh xèo – “sizzling cake” — as the quintessential street food. It's cheap, quick and simple. It could be considered the equivalent of what we think of a hot dog. A more direct comparison, of course, is the French crepe, but the Vietnamese actually invented it before the French arrived.
As simple as the ingredients are — batter, bean sprouts, pork, shrimp — it's common to find bad bánh xèo, especially in America, because the batter needs to hold up to the frying. It's all too easy to get a soggy, oily, bland version. When it's done right, though — well formed, crispy, hot — there are few foods that will give you such unadulterated satisfaction.
Where: The state of bánh xèo in the San Gabriel Valley is, on balance, not very good. It's a shame, too, when you can have perfectly crispy, well-executed crepes on one side of the world and on the other side the thing put in front of you is a limp piece of food, barely resembling the firm, confident renditions you can find in, say, Hoi An. At this particular moment, the state bánh xèo in the SGV is even worse than usual — Banh Xeo Quan, which produced the best of what you'd find here, is temporarily closed for renovations. It's a little bit absurd that something that's traditionally cooked in a dirty alley is not available because something about the space wasn't ideal. Right now, then, you can go down the street to Pho Filet, where at least you can get some decent bánh xèo and the additional (significant) bonus of having a very, very good bowl of pho bac. Otherwise, it's entirely worth making the trek to Westminster for the crepes at Van's Restaurant or Thanh An Restaurant. Banh Xeo Quan: 8742 E Garvey Ave., Rosemead; (626) 288-2699.
Ch? Giò (Nem Rán)
Fried egg rolls are the standard Vietnamese appetizer or accompaniment, regularly eaten alongside dishes like bún ch?. Making good ch? giò (called nem rán in Northern Vietnam) is more challenging than you'd expect – the rice paper, which forms the wrapping, is a delicate thing, and frying it so that the texture is right and it doesn't fall apart is not easy. The filling can vary, but normally ch? giò is stuffed with ground pork, wood ear mushroom, onion, and clear glass noodles.
Where: In the last three decades, hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants have opened in the Valley, but none of them have truly managed to create a better egg roll than what's served at Golden Deli, which continues to be possibly the most popular Vietnamese pho joint in L.A. Golden Deli: 815 W Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; (626) 308-0803.
Nem N??ng Cu?n
If you're reading this, you're probably familiar with the concept of a Vietnamese spring roll. You can find decent versions of nem cu?n or goi cu?n around much of the SGV, or pretty much any major city, and it's maybe the easiest Vietnamese dish to make at home — even Von's sells spring roll wrappers these days.
But there's one spring roll in San Gabriel that's as good as much of what you'd find in not just Orange County, but also Vietnam: nem n??ng cu?n. Nem n??ng are basically charcoal-grilled pork meatballs, slightly charred and stretched to around the length of a hot dog. They are best eaten in spring rolls, where dampened rice paper curls around the meat and crunchy accompaniments. In San Gabriel, it's typical to to be given the pork alongside vermicelli and the normal repertoire of herbs and greens — basil, mint, cilantro — to wrap and roll.
Where: L.A.'s media has done a pretty good job causing a ruckus over this food. It deserves it. The charge was led by Jonathan Gold and taken up by various outlets, and Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa — now simply called Summer Rolls — made it onto this paper's 99 Essential Restaurants. It would've made it even if the only thing the place served was its nem n??ng cu?n. The reason: These spring rolls are astoundingly addicting. Summer Rolls (formerly Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa): 9016 Mission Dr., Rosemead; (626) 286-3370.
Cà Phê S?a Dá
Cà phê s?a ?á, or iced iced coffee, is more of a street cup than a street dish, but it's essential to a proper Vietnamese street meal anyway. Vietnam is, quietly, one of the most coffee-obsessed countries in the world, eclipsing even France, which brought the stuff to Vietnam in the first place. If we're guessing which countries intake the most caffeine per capita, guess number one would be Cuba, where people down cafecitos like water, but a close second would be Vietnam, where the attitude is much the same.
Proper Vietnamese coffee is filtered in a little device designed to make the boiled water settle in the coffee grounds for as long as possible. Depending on the filter, it can take as long as a half hour to get an espresso-sized cup. If you think Vietnamese drink iced coffee because it can get very hot in Vietnam, well, you're probably at least partially correct, but the real reason might be that the drink is cold by the time it's ready to sip anyway.
Cà phê s?a ?á is also extraordinarily sweet, a trait in common with both Burmese and Thai ice tea. Instead of milk and sugar, a Vietnamese barista will put a dollop (or several) of sweetened condensed milk in the cup.
Where: Many enjoy the cà phê s?a ?á at Summer Rolls, which achieves all the characteristics of a good Vietnamese iced coffee — strong as hell, not too sweet, creamy — but San Gabriel's best coffee (and some of L.A.'s, too) is served at Fresh Roast in San Gabriel. Coffee is an operation here. Everything is roasted in house; you can see all sorts of machines in the back grinding different varieties. You can take bags home, and, if you need the proper equipment to make your own coffee, they'll sell you Vietnamese filters and sweetened condensed milk. Fresh Roast is also simply a nice cafe, a good place to study for a few hours or digest after an excessively large Chinese meal. Fresh Roast: 308 S San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 451-5918.