With the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, a wave of Vietnamese came to the United States. First political and military allies, then refugees, nearly a million souls came to the US, and were settled in various communities. Slowly, as the late 1970s and early 80s picked up steam and many former refugees became a bit more established, the community began to centralize in a few locations. Orange County, California, became the biggest.
It’s a hot summer day, and few people are out on the sidewalks of Bolsa Avenue in Westminster, California, the heart of what has become known as Little Saigon. While most in the area choose to drive from strip mall to strip mall – the Southern California mindset at its best – I opt for cold drinks and a walk. Yes, parking is plentiful here in the literal definition of suburban sprawl, but a stroll allows me to notice little details of the area that I might otherwise miss: a gate with Chinese characters (Vietnamese is normally written in the Latin alphabet, although pronunciation is rarely close to what I’d imagine phonetically), a statue of a lion or a Buddha, the wafting smell of lemongrass, the sing-song sounds of the Vietnamese language.
I sip on a strong, sweet iced coffee from Sun Moon Bakery, the caffeine hitting me in moments, and put a couple of the bakery’s signature moon cakes into my car for later. Vietnamese coffee is – in my experience – the strongest in the world, and this one is no exception. I close my eyes in the sun, sipping the cold brew, and recall a similar experience I had in Nha Trang, where a coffee at a roadside cafe left me feeling drunk. This one doesn’t take me that far, but gives me the energy I need to brave the summer heat here in Southern California.
Little Saigon is the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. Of roughly 2.1 million Vietnamese-Americans in the United States as of the 2011 Census, nearly 200,000 live here in Orange County. The area is huge in comparison to Thai Town or other ethnic neighborhoods, and has outgrown Westminster to flow into neighboring Garden Grove, as well, while the community itself spreads farther still. Little Saigon itself is about three square miles, still centered along Bolsa Avenue as it has been for decades, and the perpendicular Brookhurst and Magnolia Streets. In typical Orange County fashion, pretty much nothing is on the street front itself; strip malls are the accepted norm here, with the loss of a true neighborhood feel being partially made up for with an abundance of free – if time limited – parking in each center.
Sun Moon is in the corner of a strip mall dominated by T&K Food Market, and the entrance to the place is a huge gate spanning four lanes of traffic with the T&K name. The market itself is a wonderland of strange – to me – products and produce, and I spend more than a half hour at caffeine fueled shopping and browsing, leaving the store with an assortment of exciting items: durian candy, rice crackers larger than my head, a beverage made of white fungus, shelf-stable sausages, ginger tea, and more. For me, exploring ethnic markets is at the heart of exploring a neighborhood like this, and this one was perfect.
Back in the heat, I soon find myself in search of another cold beverage, and Vietnamese milk tea is the one I choose. A couple blocks to the west of T&K is Presotea. I opt for a white peach milk tea (brewed tea with fresh milk; non-dairy options are also available) and pay an extra $.50 to get lychee jelly added to the bottom. I’ve never loved boba (it feels like drinking eyeballs to me), but these little rectangles of sweet gelatinous goodness are heavenly!
Across the street from Presotea is my next stop: Ba Le Sandwiches, a tiny storefront in – of course – another strip mall, with but a single table inside. That’s ok, as I want to eat while I walk, and Ba Le specializes in what might just be the best banh mi sandwich I’ve ever eaten. BBQ pork (other options abound), vegetables, chiles, and herbs sit lovingly in a crunchy baguette, the one positive that came out of French colonial rule of Vietnam. A banh mi is a perfect sandwich, and it pairs well with my tea. Plus, at only $4 per, you can easily try a few!
The hardest part of a visit to Little Saigon is picking where – and what – to eat. There are literally hundreds of options, and all look and smell divine. In Covid times, I am guided by what has outdoor seating or offers to-go options that would reheat well back at home, so I sadly walk past Quan Mii and its rice crepes (I’ll be back) and – by chance, luck, or skill – find myself at Thanh My in the same shopping center. A few minutes later, I am laden down with to-go containers of rice vermicelli, lemongrass chicken, and bun bo Hue, a spicy and delicious soup made of beef and pork. Vietnamese noodles are fresh, rather than the dried noodles of Thai cuisine, and served with meat, herb salad, and sweet chili sauce. You’ll love them, and the ones here are even great the following day.
Back at T&K (and my car), I have one final stop: Thach Che Hien Khanh, the top-rated Vietnamese bakery in Little Saigon. The line out the door gives weight to this claim. Most of the desserts appear gelatinous, and I’m fascinated, but as I’m taking my treasures back home, I need something a bit more survivable of a car ride. Sesame-covered balls and breads beckon, and I order some. No, I don’t know what they are, but the crowd seems to be working through them quickly, and enjoying them, so I see no reason I won’t. The sesame balls remind me of buttered popcorn, although the inside is a legume of some sort. I gobble down half a dozen back at home, wishing I knew what they were called, and hoping that movie theatres would carry these in place of popcorn to begin with. The bread was also good, and I’m sure anything else there would have likewise provided a good sweet finish to the day.
This was my first trip to Little Saigon, fact that embarrasses me to an extent, as I am a local to Southern California who loves food. Well, it won’t be my last. I’m already craving another milk tea and banh mi, and Westminster is only 45 minutes down the freeway.
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