Quan Hop - Westminster
If pho isn't the official dish of Little Saigon, it should be. Walk any square block on Bolsa Street and you won't see just one restaurant hocking bowls of the noodle soup, but three, with a few more crowding your peripheral vision. Pho joints are to Westminster as taquerias are to Santa Ana; a ubiquitous part of the landscape.
But as tacos aren't the end-all-be-all of Mexican food, neither is pho. Rather, it is a place to start; an accessible dish that acts as a gateway to the other wonders of Vietnamese cuisine.
Quan Hop, the little sister to Quan Hy (a Little Saigon institution I haven't had the pleasure of trying), sells pho. And it does the dish quite well; one of the best bowls I've had in the area, in fact.
Their Pho Tai Bo Vien ($7.25) is, quite literally, the filet mignon of phos. Membrane-thin slices of the raw, premium steak is the featured ingredient and is so flavorful and tender it doesn't just melt in your mouth, it disintegrates.
It's cooked simply by immersion in a shimmering, anise-scented beef broth which also animates the springy homemade meat balls, the transculent slivers of onion, and the toothsome strands of rice noodles. Slurping isn't only unavoidable, it's required and expected, even in Quan Hop's crisply clean designer surroundings.
But to stop here would be criminal. As you wouldn't leave Paris after having just a baguette, you shouldn't leave Quan Hop without trying one of their Hue specialties.
Hue cuisine -- hailing from the central part of Vietnam -- is the food of royalty, from a time long gone and almost forgotten. The typical Hue dish is a measured balance of flavors and textures, with an added emphasis on presentation, and will often come with its own special sauce, for dipping or dousing.
Yet another characteristic of Hue food is the creative use of rice flour, which Quan Hop expertly demonstrates in a dish called Banh Beo ($5.00); one the restaurants signature concoctions.
Rice flour batter is steamed in miniature saucers and sprinkled with minced shrimp meat, diced scallions and fried caramelized bits of onion.
An order comes in eight single serving shots, arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid on a square dish. Holding the center square is a bowl of sauce with floating rounds of diced Thai chilis -- bobbing menaces you should treat like sea mines.
To eat a Banh Beo, take a teaspoon to task and splash on a few drops of the golden sauce, then scoop out the rice cake as you would a cup of dessert gelatin. The opaque and milky white substance, is not unlike a very dense rice noodle, with a clean, light, and firm texture which not at all starchy or pasty.
But for all intents and purposes, it is devoid of flavor, which is where the toppings and the sauce come in. The latter, in particular, provides a pungent, sweet, and vinegary bite; the kind that leaves you wanting more.
For an explosive burst of scorching heat, add a few pieces of the Thai chili -- you'll be glad the room is air-conditioned.
Banh Hoi Thit Nuong ($7.00) is another variation of the rice flour theme. For the dish, curly strands of rice vermicelli noodles are knitted to form flat and floppy rectangular swatches and served with crispy grilled slices of lemongrass-marinated pork.
The meat is then to be wrapped in this noodle-mesh pancake and eaten with accoutrements of cucumbers, pickled carrots, iceberg lettuce, and minty tia to leaves. Flanking the dish is, of course, a thin dipping sauce spiked of garlic and chili, which reins it all in like a unifying force.
If you demand that your rice noodles are a served in its original incarnation, the bowl of Hu Tiu hop Dai ($6.75) should prove pleasing. The mound of round noodles comes dry, with a topping of herbs, minced and whole cooked shrimp, and slices of roast pork. A base of shredded lettuce lurks on the bottom of the bowl for crunch.
On the side, in a smaller bowl, is the sauce to be poured and then tossed with the other ingredients. As dark as crude oil and as thickly sweet as pancake syrup, this specially formulated brew adds a bold complexity to the dish, and makes for a noodle salad to beat other noodle salads.
Another item from the appetizer menu resembles something you'd see at dim sum. Banh uot Tom Chay ($5.50) is as slender as a taquito, and comes six to an order.
Each roll -- made from rice flour batter spread as thinly as a crepe -- is as delicate as a pre-dawn dream. But the sauce which accompanies is redolent of chopped garlic, floating in raw chunks and ready for action.
As a finisher to the meal on one visit, the restaurant supplied complimentary fried sesame seed balls. Deep fried to a nutty crisp, each glutinuous rice sphere hides a sugary sweet mash of yellow bean paste. I'd gladly put down a jelly-donut to have these for breakfast.
Quan Hop's menu is full of such surprises. All an intrepid diner has to do is look past the pho column and venture into the unexplored and tasty.
15640 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683
Post-script: Read Professor Salt's review of Quan Hop's pho here!