Brash, generous, bold, gregarious, earthy, charismatic, and charming; these are the words I'd use to describe Beach, the man we Orange County food bloggers have dubbed the "Don of Little Saigon". Although we've only met for a few times, I feel like I've known Beach my entire life. He's everyone's favorite uncle. The one that talks really loudly, cracks paint-blisteringly inappropriate jokes, and is always there with a hug and fat red packet come Chinese New Year.
The man also knows his Vietnamese food. I mean, really knows his Vietnamese food. Anyone who thinks they know anything about the cuisine of Vietnam needs to spend a few minutes talking to Beach. This is a guy who grew up in Vietnam, learned how to cook old school, fled to Korea with his family on a boat after the war, made his way to the United States, and now designs aerospace products essential to the operation of our nation's armed forces. I'd tell you more about his work, but then I'd have to kill you, which I would do for just another taste of his cooking. There's a reason we call him the Don of Little Saigon. He knows that area like back of his hand, and can explain in detail every type of food or dish produced there. His extensive eating tours of Vietnam have only added to his encyclopedic knowledge.
Tonight, I was honored to have been invited to Beach's home for dinner, along with Kirk of mmm-yoso!, the Missus, and Cat. Elmomonster of Monster Munching was unable to make it, but we took care of his share for him. Beach and his lovely wife made us a magnificent, three course feast that I won't be forgetting any time soon.
Cat and I were almost an hour late, since we were coming from a contract meeting with a hotel in San Pedro for our wedding. The meeting had run long, and we have to fight our way back south through Cinco de Mayo traffic. Fortunately for us, everyone was very understanding. Part of that probably had something to do with this glorious bottle of Kubota Manju that Beach was busy plying Kirk and the Missus with when we arrived. The sake was cold and lightly syrupy, with a smooth finish that gently faded away on the tongue. It was my first time trying it, but probably won't be the last.
The first course was Bun Cha Hanoi, which Beach had prepared personally. Ground pork meatballs and thin slices of pork back were marinated, grilled, and served in deep bowl of Nuoc Cham, made using fish sauce, citrus, and water. Lightly pickled pieces of carrot and green mango added a refreshing counterpoint to the rich meat. This was quite possibly the best Bun Cha Hanoi I'd ever tasted.
According the Beach, the best way to eat Bun Cha Hanoi is to select the herbs and greenery you want from the garnish basket, tear the leaves up into small pieces, and place them in your dinner bowl.
You also add a portion of the Bun (Rice Vermicelli) you've been served. Don't take too much. There's still more you need to fit in your bowl.
Finally, select a few pieces of meat and pickle from your serving bowl, spoon some Nuoc Cham over the top, and enjoy. Beach admitting that although this method of eating Bun Cha Hanoi is widely preferred, it's also considered vulgar in polite company. I've seen other people eat Bun Cha Hanoi this way in Little Saigon, so I'm not particularly worried. I even slurped my noodles when I ate them. The slurping made them particularly delicious.
Aware of my addiction to Thai bird chilies, Beach and his wife thoughtfully provided me with a heaping helping. Da panda does love his spicy foods.
Beach's wife also had lots of fresh cucumber slices available for us to cleanse our palates between rounds of Bun Cha Hanoi. I must have eaten six or seven bowls, although the Missus put me to shame. How a tiny creature like her can eat so much and stay so thin is an act of cosmic unfairness. Cat had three bowls, but wasn't able to finish her serving. However, she liked the food very much.
Once the Missus and I finally ground to a halt on the Bun Cha Hanoi, Beach brought out the second course; a heaping bowl of Bun Rieu Oc made by his talented wife. Rieu, pillowy cakes of finely ground crab, shrimp, and egg, floated on a richly flavored sea of shellfish soup and Bun. Redolent with the unctuous taste of freshwater crustaceans, the Rieu dissolved in our mouths like the finest mousse. They were accompanied by hearty chunks of deep fried tofu and tart wedges of stewed tomatoes. It was amazing. Better than any bowl of Bun Rieu I'd tried before. Find me the restaurant that can make Bun Rieu like this and I'll eat there every week.
The sharp-eyed and quick-witted with be asking where the Oc (Water Snails) went. In order to accommodate different tastes, Beach's wife served the Oc separately, so each diner could add their own preferred amount. Delicately stewed in yellow onions, green onions, and spices, the Oc were juicy and tender, completely unlike any Oc I'd eaten in restaurants. While the Oc I'd had in Little Saigon were chewy and rubbery, with a funky taste, the Oc Beach's wife prepared were so soft, it was almost like eating perfectly cooked baby scallops. If I hadn't already been so full, I think I could have eaten the entire plate.
To go with the Bun Rieu Oc, we had sliced iceberg lettuce, a traditional accompaniment.
There was also a pile of young Kong Qing Cai or Ong Choy (Chinese Water Spinach), which Beach's wife had cooked to perfection.
Barely able to move at that point, we were only able to nibble on the third course, a small, chilled watermelon, which Beach sliced and served. Light, sweet, and refreshing, it was a satisfying end to a truly amazing meal that redefined both Bun Cha Hanoi and Bun Rieu Oc for me. I feel blessed to have been invited, and can only hope that Beach will have me back someday for another of his wonderful culinary creations.
Cám ón ông Beach. Cám ón.
Other dining adventures with Beach.