The idea of eating Vietnamese food in a trendy, eco-friendly complex near South Coast Plaza with Little Saigon mere minutes away on the 405 freeway might seem ludicrous. And in most instances, it probably would be. However, a false start at another eatery in The Camp sent us toward the exit, and since we were short on time, another on-site restaurant would have to do, which is how we landed at East Borough, a contemporary, open-air Vietnamese concept from John Cao and Chloe Tran that dates to 2010.
There isn’t much magic involved when it comes to Spring Rolls (2 for $4.60). Basically, is the pork flavorful, and is the shrimp fresh? Check and check. They must have rolled the “spring” to order, since the rice paper and vermicelli weren’t close to dry. Sprouts and chives added crunch, and the rolls enjoyed dips in sweet peanut dipping sauce sprinkled with crushed peanuts.
The pork belly bowl ($8.35) was the meal’s highlight featuring a halved boiled egg that was still hot, big chunks of tender, meaty belly, pickled mustard greens to undercut the dish’s richness, and pork gravy sweetened with onions. One of the things that separated East Borough from a lot of fast casual Asian concepts was their clear focus – Vietnamese – and their attention to detail. For instance, the bowl came with a sidecar of (warm) gravy to pour over the white rice.
They offered several different banh mi sandwiches, including meatloaf, pork loaf, ham, tofu, cheese, and our pick, Grilled Pork (12 inches, $6.40). The lean, crusty cuts of pork were a little dry, but they carried good flavor from a lemongrass marinade. Daikon and carrots were thicker cut than normal, and the baguette a little heftier than most in Little Saigon. We got the requisite cilantro, jalapeño and cucumber. Some people might complain that $6.40 is pricey for banh mi, but not in The Camp, and if this sandwich was available in my L.A. neighborhood, which is about 30 minutes from more prototypical equivalents, people would probably re-route to eat it.
Each table hosted a dish of spicy, Christmas colored chile peppers, in case jalapenos don’t cut it.
One bonus was East Borough’s Lychee Soda ($2.75), which was refreshing, with mint leaves up top and sweet minced lychee at the bottom of the plastic cup.
Is East Borough advancing the cause for Vietnamese food in Orange County? Of course not, but if the restaurant was up the road in Little Saigon, people would probably still go there. Of course, part of the appeal with East Borough is that the fashionable concept has a sense of place, and since opening in 2010, it’s added value to The Camp.