It’s never been a better time to eat in Little Saigon, the confluence of Garden Grove, Westminster, Costa Mesa and Fountain Valley, an area with the highest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of their native country. New restaurants are popping up constantly, and increasingly, they’re occupying the fringes of the aforementioned towns. Edwin Goei’s OC Weekly news item alerted me to the opening of Hue Oi, which debuted in April in a strip mall that’s set apart from Little Saigon proper, in a former pho shop. The name refers to a city in central Vietnam, the former seat of royalty, and Oi is a greeting that’s equivalent to “Hey.” The restaurant is owned by the Duong family, including Linh, wife Vinh and son Long.
Bún hến ($6.50), available Friday to Sunday only, was an especially satisfying surprise, featuring rice vermicelli topped with baby clams, tiny, plump, rife with salinity and stir-fried with a pungent mix of red chilies, fish sauce and shrimp paste. In well-balanced Vietnamese fashion, the bowl also hosted Vietnamese greens, fibrous banana flower shavings that initially looked like red onions, roasted peanuts, romaine, cilantro, crunchy bean sprouts, crispy fried (house-made) pork skins and a fibrous stem that looked like it could have been shot full of holes at the end of Bonnie & Clyde. In case that wasn’t a wide enough array of flavors and textures, diners also have the option to add spicy house-made chile paste. Do it.
The Banh Loc La/Banh Nam Combo ($5.50) basically featured two takes on Vietnamese “tamales.” Banh Loc La involves glutinous steamed tapioca dumplings with peppery shell-on shrimp and firm pieces of stir fried pork belly, all wrapped in banana leaves. Banh Nam turned out to be steamed flour cakes with ground shrimp wrapped in banana leaves. They were flat, not glutinous, and approximated tamales, but were also vaguely reminiscent of Armenian lahmajunes.
Long recommended ordering Nuoc Dam Van ($2), a roasted bean drink that he said was sweet, refreshing, and compared to coffee. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but the flavor was surprisingly similar to coffee, minus the side effects.
Of course it’s rarely ideal to visit a restaurant solo, unless it’s a true specialist, but at Hue Oi, it was still possible to get a sense for their central Vietnamese dishes, and based on that sampling, a return visit to dig deeper is definitely warranted and forthcoming.
Note: Hue Oi moved to Garden Grove to Fountain Valley in 2012.