I usually come back to Southern California, where I grew up, to visit my family during the holidays. While most people are at the mall frantically shopping for gifts for everyone on their list, you can find me at the various restaurants and grocery stores, eating my way through California Mexican and Vietnamese food and stocking up on everything I can’t get in Paris. Every time I come back, I’m reminded of all the things I will always love and miss about this area of the US.
Now, the Mexican and Vietnamese dining scene here has been meticuously documented, and there are tons of great sites to get you started if you’re hungry and in the area. I’m not going to try to compete with their exhaustive and impressive efforts. Instead, I’ve included some at the bottom of this post and I’d like to take you on one of my typical shopping/eating trips for necessities.
As far as Vietnamese food goes, I have very little problem getting the ingredients I need to make a good meal at home in Paris. Vietnamese herbs, rice paper, palm sugar, bird’s eye chilis, fresh or frozen lemongrass, shrimp paste, and other staples are easily obtainable. For Southeast Asian groceries, I always head to Thanh Binh Jeune (18, rue Lagrange, 75005, Paris). It’s a nice little bike ride down the Seine from my apartment, the owner is the sweetest lady and they’ve always got the basics I need. Although the 13e arrondissement has plenty of good little restaurants, eating Vietnamese food out in Paris doesn’t hold a chandle to the selection of restaurants, bakeries, and pho joints here. So, I take advantage while I can.
One thing I’ve yet to see a good selection of in Paris is vietnamese beef jerkey (khô bò). Forget that shoe leather in a bag available at every road-stop gas station that you risk losing a tooth to get a piece of and only leaves you with a sore jaw. This is the real deal. Moist and full of flavor ranging from spicy and bursting with umami to nutty and sticky-sweet, it’s a little more expensive than what you might be used to. But, this isn’t any-ol’ jerkey, remember? I always stop by Van’s Bakery (8926 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA or 14346 Brookhurst St, Garden Grove, CA) because their jerkey is always really fresh and moist and in big help-yourself tubs. I bought some curried jerkey as well as some of the sweet kind with cashews. I couldn’t resist snacking on some right away, but I got extra to take to DC to share with Z.
For banh mi, the chains Lee’s Sandwiches and Bánh Mì & Chè Cali have locations all over Orange County. They’re both popular, but neither is my favorite. Instead, I head to Top Baguette (9016 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA). I like their #3, a caramel chicken banh mi. They’ve got a great selection, their baguettes live up to the name, and they’re not shy about the veggies or the hot pepper. Last time I was in town I stopped by so many times, the owner asked if I had just moved to the area. (I only get this a few times a year people!) This time I had more shopping to do, so I got mine to go. But, there are tables and chairs to eat in if you want as well. Other good addresses are Le Versailles (9441 Edinger Ave, Westminster, CA) and Boulangerie Pierre (14352 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, CA). But, there are so many banh mi places here that half the fun is trying out at least one new one each time I come to town.
And, of course, no trip to Little Saigon would be complete without a nice big bowl of pho. One of the things I love about Asian food is the often communal approach to meals and the resulting variety of dishes that one can have at any given meal. But, it’s tough to convince my family to head out with me to eat at these places (I know, I don’t get it either.), so it’s also nice to have things I can enjoy on my own. And, pho is one of those dishes. Some people are northern or southern pho purists, but I generally just look for a few requirements. Skimping on the fresh herbs is generally a good sign that you’re in the wrong spot. Also, a good broth is key — if it’s too oily or bland it kills the whole thing.
I love Phở Thanh (9625 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, CA), which is known for their phở ga (chicken), and stopped in for a bowl this week. It comes with a generous plate of herbs, sprouts and lime, and hoisin and chili sauces on the side. The small was plenty, but I couldn’t resist some fresh spring rolls too. Too often these rolls are used and abused — iceburg lettuce, too many glass noodles, no herbs — but, these were done right. They came with with both peanut and sweet diping sauces, but I would have prefered just a little fish sauce on the side. And, while you’re in the area, you can stop by the T&K Food Market (9681 Bolsa Ave.) in Today Plaza just next door. With it’s huge Laughing Buddha statue out front you can’t miss it, and it’s a one-stop-shop for anything you need to make a Vietnamese feast at home.
But unlike Vietnamese food, good Mexican food in Paris is a different story. A few newer contenders Candlearia (52, rue de Saintonge, 75003, Paris) and El Nopal (3, rue Eugène Varlin, 75010, Paris) have upped the anty a bit in terms of restaurants. And, as far as Mexican groceries go, forget it. So, I stock up while I’m home. This time, I headed to Northgate Market (1120 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, CA). The minute I walked in, I was sorry I had already eaten: tortas, carnitas, horchata, agua fresca, fresh tortillas, fresh salsa all prepared for carry out and diplays with everything you need for your holiday tamales. I still have a stash of hot sauce in Paris, but I stopped by to marvel at the selection anyway.
It took everything I had to be reasonable with my purchases and only buy what I could carry back in my suitcase. They have a great selection of fresh tortillas: white/yellow corn, blue corn, tortillas de nopal, or flour (if you absolutely must). Tortillas in Paris are unforgivably awful and I’ve about had it. When you do find them it’s either those terrible hard shells that are half broken when you get them out of the box anyway or big flour tortillas. I once saw a box in the grocery store labeled as corn tortillas. I should have known better but I was really craving tacos, and they ended up tasting just like a flour tortilla with a slightly yellowish tint. So, walking past the selection here, I really wanted to buy a stash to freeze in Paris, but I just couldn’t justify taking them in and out of the fridge at each of the 3 stops on my little U.S. visit.
So, I did the next best thing: I bought a tortilla press and some masa harina. A little more work, but oh so worth it. I also picked up a variety of dried chilis and some achiote rojo. Some people’s New Year’s resolutions involve losing 10 lbs, mine: Paris Taco Party 2012.
I also couldn’t resist stopping by Tacos Jerez (17681 Beach Boulevard, Huntington Beach, CA). It’s a small, no frills place with good honest street tacos for 89 cents each. The chicken is, well, chicken. Go for the carne asada, or the lengua, which melts in your mouth just like it should. I hear their tortas are good too. Maybe next time.
Paris take note: tacos aren’t a fancy affair, but you’ve got to get it right — lots of cilantro, some onions, a good salsa selection, and some assorted pickles. I still can’t bring myself to be satisfied with expensive tacos along with even more expensive and overly-sweet Paris cocktails. And, don’t even get me started on gruyere! No.
Unfortunately, my Southern California cuisine bonanza coincides with the holidays every year, which bring their own share of rich foods. And unfortunately, there are only so many meals I can possibly tolerate in a day. But, visting a few favorites and replenishing my Paris stash usually tides me over. At least for a while …
Other links you might like:
Battle of the Banh Mi, maintained by Todd and Diane of White on Rice Couple, has a directory of restaurants and bakeries serving these sandwiches all over the country, and links to reviews and a google map for directions. Helpful recipes too.
Stick a Fork in it, an OC Weekly blog, has lots of current write-ups on restaurants in the area.