Kim Loan - Fullerton
There are few establishments that can defy trends, fickle tastes, and the passage of time. Kim Loan is one of those places. This Fullerton Vietnamese restaurant is the grizzled old bear in a tired asphalt parking lot once anchored by Alpha-Beta and Thrifty's. In the twenty years or so years of its existence, it has outlived them both, survived at least two fires, and stands proudly as one of the few Vietnamese joints to have succeeded outside of Little Saigon.
The tables are worn, rubbed off by thousands of elbows, and the ceiling tiles are yellowed with age, but the owner's smile remains genuine even as his eyelids reveal more than just a hint of fatigue. After years spent in faithful service to his customers, his hair has greyed and his step is slower than I remember. But even as he commands an unseen kitchen crew and a familiar group of waiters, he still manages to chat up one of his many Mexican customers in flawless Spanish, bark back orders in Vietnamese, and greet me warmly with a "Hi! How are you?"
This easy charm and accessibility translates to his food, which he offers at a low price and in ample portions. His meals are simple, honest, and aimed to please the proletariat, not the gourmand (who will rightly scoff that his pho is too sweet). Come around lunchtime, and you'll see guys in greasy overalls, women in pastel nurse uniforms, and an occasional office drone shoveling spoonfuls of rice and meat into their gullets.
It was this food that first introduced me to the wonders of Vietnamese cuisine when I was an impressionable teen. And now, nostalgia brings me back.
I ordered up a mound of steamed broken rice with a trio of traditional toppings: thin, brown planks of grilled pork, a yellow block of egg quiche, and some shredded pork skin. The grilled pork was just as I remember; sugary to the point of overkill, aromatically scented with fish sauce, and charred from the smoky heat of the grill. Cellophane noodles acted as rebar inside the sturdy egg casserole, which tasted like it was lovingly hand made by a Vietnamese grandmother. Eaten with nouc cham, fresh cut cucumber, lettuce, and tomato, this plate of food fed my memories as well as my stomach.
Another dish I ordered to bring back a surge of fondness was something they call Fried Salted Shrimp. First a saucer of squeezed lemon juice is brought out, sloshing its way up the shallow brim: a signal that the shrimp and all of its delectable deep-fried glory was about to arrive. When it did, I dipped a lightly battered prawn into the tart citrus puddle before popping it into my waiting mouth.
Fried golden to the right degree of doneness and optimum crispness, the sweet crustaceans are a treat to eat and more addictive than popcorn. As good as the shrimp was, it would not be complete without the flavor-packed golden bits of toasted garlic, which were strewn over the dish like crunchy confetti.
I don't know how long the owner intends to keep Kim Loan open, but here's hoping to at least another decade and many more humble plates of good food, priced low.
Kim Loan Restaurant
1651 W Orangethorpe Ave
Fullerton, CA 92833