By Gail Miyasaki
The popular beef noodle soup, pho, is daily comfort food for most Vietnamese people. Adventure beyond, explore the nuances of this culture’s cuisine.
A chance cooking demo at South Coast Bloomingdale’s, of all places, where chef Haley Nguyen was serving up a tasty lemongrass beef salad was enough to whet my curiosity and taste buds.
Owner of Xanh Bistro, her small casual café quietly sits in a far corner of a Fountain Valley Albertson’s shopping center on the perimeter of Little Saigon, with the largest Vietnamese population in the U.S.
In January, celebrations centered on their one year anniversary and Tet, the Vietnamese New Year festivities, to usher in the year of the buffalo.
Xanh, pronounced saan, means green. With an open kitchen design, a bold green color significantly brightens the expanse of the back wall—a visual reminder of the rice paddies and rolling hills that make up the Vietnam landscape.
Welcome to Haley’s place! A friendly, young server offers beverages, wine or beer, as we eye a menu with both Vietnamese characters and English—appetizers, salads, soups, chef’s specials, veggies, rice noodle bowls, rice plates and desserts.
What tempts? Tom Com Dep, crispy, rice flake encrusted shrimp with tangy plum sauce at $8.95, or maybe Goi Hoa Chuoi, a salad of banana blossoms, Vietnamese mint, sesame seeds, peanuts, shrimp, grilled pork with house lime-cilantro dressing.
We start off with Goi Cuon, spring roll appetizers. These Vietnamese “burritos” of rice paper are filled with shrimp, pork loin, chopped lettuce, noodles, fried onions, jicama and cukes. A dipper’s heaven! Pick from a robust hoisin sauce with chunky peanuts or the tangy garlic lime-chili infused house fish sauce.
Goi Xoai and Du Du Xanh, a refreshing tropical salad, tastes as good it looks! Stacked high are julienned strips of papaya and mango, pickled carrots, basil and peanuts splashed with a lime-coconut vinaigrette, and then completed with juicy shrimp. A bit sweet, a bit sour—pleasurable!
A selection from the chef’s specials is the slow cooked white fish. Haley selects Vietnamese catfish, or basa, and takes it to a sublime level of satisfaction. Featured in “Yum! Tasty Recipes from Culinary Greats,” fish chunks are served in a clay pot with a peppery caramelized glaze of shoyu, fish sauce, brown sugar and molasses.
The ultimate beef eater’s choice— oh-so-good, falls-off-your-fork (or chopsticks) 5-spice short ribs! No pressure cooker found in this kitchen, key is slow cooking for four hours. Quickly fried carrot strips add a tempura-like crunchiness, balanced with sautéed garlicky mustard greens. Food bloggers pay respect to this $14.95 entrée.
For chocoholics, or soon-to-be once tasted, savor the experience of this well-balanced trio—warm dark chocolate molten cake, chilled ginger ice cream and a cup of steaming lemongrass tea.
To really appreciate what Xanh represents today, know that Haley’s upbringing as a child during the Vietnam War era defines who she is now. Growing up in Di An, near Saigon, she remembers all too well the distressing sounds of bombs and gunfire and a constant fear that was woven into her daily existence.
Summers spent in a southern coastal town with Grandma Khai Nguyen is when she learned how to cook foods harvested from the land and sea. Khai, now 87, made a living by wheeling and dealing foodstuff at a local marketplace, then traveling distances away by foot to resell at another.
The market scene intrigued Haley— the sights, sounds and smells, but mostly the social interaction with people.
“I loved the beautiful colors of tropical fruits and vegetables, the live fish swimming in shallow metal tubs, and my most favorite spot was where the ready-to-eat food vendors were,” she says. “You could see steaming sweet rice in baskets covered with banana leaves while pots of noodle soup lined the sidewalks.”
In 1975, with the Communist takeover, all nine members of her family were lucky to escape aboard a small fishing boat out of Ben Da, ending up on U.S. soil in Guam. Eventually, they received sponsorship from a Catholic church in a small Indiana town.
Haley confronted a different angst after earning a degree from Indiana Univ. Her passion for all things food-related was apparent. Taking a leap of faith in 1993, she opened her first restaurant, Annan Café, in Boulder, Colo.
Challenges are her forte. This Saddleback Community College associate professor of ethnic cooking, Art Institute of Calif. culinary arts instructor, tour guide to Vietnam, mom to three sons and caterer is now a repeat restaurateur.
Want to learn how to make these popular spring rolls? Enter Xanh’s cooking classes. Early one Saturday morning, our group of five friends met for Market Tour 101 at the Westminster Shun Fat Superstore.
In a former K-Mart, this megastore can be intimidating! Aisles and aisles full of good-looking fresh fruits, veggies, seafood— in and out of tanks, meats, noodles, rice, sauces and much more.
Haley, the consummate storyteller of many an interesting food tale, leads us through the familiar, and unfamiliar—as we touch, smell, taste, observe, question and learn.
At Xanh, our hands-on cooking experience finishes with the pìece de résistance—a luncheon of the clay pot fish, papaya and mango fruit salad, spring rolls and a surprise banana-tapioca dessert, finished with freshly brewed lemongrass tea.
Staying true to home-style foods and spices, Haley’s place pays respect to her culture and Khai back in Vietnam, relying on the freshest of products for superb flavors. Expect to pay more here than at the local Vietnamese noodle houses, but the difference in taste and presentation makes up for it.
A different cuisine, healthy ingredients . . . the journey continues.
Location: 16161 Brookhurst St., Foutain Valley
Phone: (714) 531-2030
Hours: Lunch 11-2:30; Dinner 5-10; closed Tuesdays
Credit Cards: MC, Visa