In “Highlander,” the 1986 movie starring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, the writers made it very clear “There can be only one.” However, that adage doesn’t hold true in the case of Little Saigon. Orange County features the largest and best known Vietnamese community in the U.S., but you’ll also find neighborhoods by that name in Houston and San Jose, all offering a wealth of eating opportunities. On a recent trip to Northern California with friend Matthew “Mattatouille” Kang, we ended up at Vung Tau, perhaps the best-known Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose’s Little Saigon, a sprawling multi-room restaurant that featured a number of tempting dishes.
Chac Do and family opened the original location of Vung Tau in 1985, naming their restaurant for a popular beach in southern Vietnam, with seating for 32. The restaurant became so popular that they soon upgraded to a new Vung Tau nearby in San Jose, which seats 150. They also own branches of Vung Tau in Milpitas (1996) and Newark (2000), plus the popular Tamarine in Palo Alto (2002). In the late Oughts, they also owned a high end Vietnamese restaurant called Bong Su in San Francisco’s SoMa, but it didn’t last.
It turns out waiter was from the Little Saigon in Orange County. We asked about the difference in food between the two neighborhoods and he said, “If San Jose is an 8, Westminster is a 10.” Still, he acknowledged we were in the area’s best restaurant. The menu certainly spoke to us, with dozens of variations on rice plates, noodle bowls, soups and much more.
Banh Khot ($8.50) is a signature dish at Vung Tau, and their rice flour “cupcakes” were excellent, glutinous inside, crispy outside, studded with plump shrimp and showered with shrimp flour and scallions. They appeared with romaine and herbs, which served as the wrapper and garnish, and benefited even more with a savory spoonful of fish sauce.
Com Dia Dac Biet II ($12.50) turned out to be a good way to try a number of dishes, with a winning combination of boneless dark-meat chicken caramelized in a blend of garlic, lemongrass and chile (Com Ga Xa Ot) and crisp-sheathed imperial rolls (Tom Qua Tien) containing sweet shrimp, dippable in a sweet and spicy chile sauce. We even received a generous portion of fried rice tossed with egg, sweet pork sausage and canned peas, a fairly mild match for the boldly spiced chicken.
Canh Chua Vung Tau ($15.70) was a large bowl of tart, tangy tamarind soup loaded with flaky slices of skin-on catfish, salted soybeans, lemongrass, tomatoes, celery and basil. The broth was damn near addictive, so different than the country’s more popular soup counterpart, pho.
Eating at a restaurant with dozens of dishes and only one other person isn’t an ideal situation, but we ate what we could, enjoyed everything we ate, and it left us longing for more. Those are all signs of a good meal, and hopefully we’ll have more, either at a branch of Vung Tau or possibly Tamarine, which has a more progressive pan-Asian menu.