Little Saigon in Orange County, California is the oldest and largest Vietnamese community in the United States. There are 189,000 Vietnamese inhabitants in Little Saigon and 368,000 in the greater Southern California area.
Little Saigon includes the towns of Westminster and Garden Grove. The main street of activity in Little Saigon is Bolsa Avenue. For a first time visitor, a good place to start is the Asian Garden Mall (Phuoc Loc Tho).
Inside the mall there are a variety of clothing and jewelry boutiques, gift shops, small eateries and even a place to worship.
After visiting Vietnam this summer, I was interested in exploring Little Saigon and especially trying to recapture some of the wonderful food flavors I experienced in Hanoi and Hoi An. Based on some limited research and location, I had lunch at Pho 79 in the Asian Garden Mall.
I tried the very popular dish of fresh spring rolls with pork and shrimp. They were beautiful but less flavorful than I was hoping for. The peanut based sauce that accompanied the spring rolls was very different from the vinegar, sugar and fish based sauces that were consistently served in northern and central Vietnam.
I had high hopes for the chicken pho, hoping for memories of the chicken pho we had in Hanoi! Not close. Same experience when I tried to make it at home several weeks ago. What is the secret? The fried spring rolls were pretty but also just okay. I’m wondering if you can ever recapture flavors from another country in this country without the particular ingredients, climate, sounds, smells and textures?
A critical stop for me in Little Saigon was the ethnic supermarket. On this trip, I visited A Dong Supermarket. I was overwhelmed by the fresh rice noodle aisle. I have never seen so many varieties of fresh rice noodles, sold in such large (5 and 10 pound) quantities.
They also had some more unusual ingredients, including blue crab as well as snails that are used in the Vietnamese snail soup.
There are more than 4,000 businesses in just 3 square miles of this Vietnamese-dominated community. In half a day I was able to explore only a few but got a good feel for the area and what it has to offer. I also bought a beautiful Vietnamese ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese national costume consisting of a colorful silk tunic worn over pants. I have no idea where or when I will wear it, but I couldn’t resist!