Sunday, May 06, 2007

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
(714) 773-0374
1651 W Orangethorpe Ave
Fullerton, CA 92833

21 Comments:

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Wandering Chopsticks said...

Aww, I like the little mom and pop places like this. :)

Sometimes with all the searching for the latest "it" places to eat, I forget how much I enjoy the overlooked simple places.

 
At 10:58 PM, Anonymous eaterdeltustin said...

Two words come to mind when I hear Kim Loan: "cheap" and "good."

 
At 11:54 PM, Blogger xanderjoon said...

I never realized such a good place was so close to us! I will definitely try it out and compare with our current neighborhood favorite, Pho Hoang in Placentia on Yorba Linda Blvd. Thanks yet again for an excellent recommendation!

 
At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Ace N. said...

Yep, that's a classic plate of pork and rice. And you can tell it's authentic because of the plate it's on. I swear, us Vietnamese people have three different plates that we use for everything.

 
At 10:17 PM, Blogger Passionate Eater said...

From the sounds of the gregariousness of the owner, I think Kim Loan will stay in business for a LONG time!

And that is CRAZY about Alpha-Beta and Thrifty's. Your mention of those stores made me feel awfully old! Or I should say, "mature" and "wise."

 
At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Seth Chadwick said...

Oy. Alpha-Beta and Thrifty all in one shopping center. I think I need Geritol right now.

What a great review and detailed accounting of the Fried Shrimp. I can easily see fried shirmp dipped in a tart citrus sauce. Flavor and defense against scurvy all in one!

Good job, Mr. Monster!

 
At 9:03 AM, Blogger nhbilly said...

Nice history of that place and not to mention the Foooooood!

 
At 1:00 AM, Blogger Kathy said...

awww, for some reason this post made me wistful for a square (or three) of my grandma's egg quiche and a bowl of pho...must have been the phrase, "tasted like it was lovingly hand made by a Vietnamese grandmother." :)

 
At 1:23 PM, Blogger Juliet said...

There is just something about that "first taste" experience, isn't there? I have those same feelings about Dalat in Ypsilanti. Obviously, both restaurants left as good enough impression to keep us coming back for more Vietnamese food.

 
At 6:36 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

WC,

Me too! Places like this never whores itself to cutting edge cuisine, just the old standbys that has worked for years. Coupled with a friendly owner who knew me since I was half my age, and the fact that it's dirt cheap, keeps me coming back.

eaterdeltustin,

Wow! You know of it? So I assume you must have, at one point, also been eaterdelfullerton!

xanderjoon,

Keep in mind, it's a dingy place, and the food is usually not a favorite with Vietnamese countrymen...but it has a dear place in my heart.

Ace,

Yup, I see those plates everywhere. And the one with the blue trim. I think they use it for the same reason I have it in my cupboard: it's cheap!

PE,

I sure hope so. I'll be sad when they finally shutter its doors. But will know that the guy finally gets a break, and hopefully a Hawaiian vacation.

Seth and PE,

And speaking of Thrifty's, remember when their ice cream cones was $.15! Those were the days...man, I think we just dated ourselves.

nhbilly,

This is a place where food is the only thing stickin' around for. The place has the requiste dinginess of an authentic Vietnamese place.

kathy,

I don't have a Vietnamese grandmother, but it wasn't a stretch to assume that if I did, she would make it just like this.

Juliet,

It's definitely one of those places. Like your place in Ypsilanti (I love saying that name), it's Vietnamese for the masses and for impressionable newbies like the teenage me.

 
At 5:24 PM, Blogger cindy said...

Great review as always, Elmo. You captured the simplicity of this resto. Good to hear about mom and pop's that are thriving too.

And a big thumbs up on your stellar Thai Nakorn review in the OCWeekly :-)

 
At 7:34 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Cindy,

Thanks! How did you know that was me in the OC Weekly?

 
At 7:43 AM, Blogger cindy said...

Elmo--lol...how did I know it was 'you' in the OCW??

Ahhhh...Grasshopper knows the sound of the Master. ;-)

 
At 10:54 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Cindy,

Quite the sleuth you are!

 
At 3:41 PM, Anonymous nikkipolani said...

Ah, good memories! I used to work at the Hunt-Wesson office not far from Kim Loan.

 
At 10:21 PM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

I remember Alpha-Beta and Thrifty's. Those were the days. I think everyone has a restaurant that they visit more for the ambiance or memories than for the food.

 
At 1:16 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

nikkipolani,

And aren't they all fond memories? Although there were a few times that the owner wasn't there, and substituting was a lady with a very short fuse.

CP,

Yep. This is one of those places. The food is good enough, and the prices are right.

 
At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Jason said...

wow! i need to try this, my mom used to work in a restaurant long ago in fullerton and so i asked if she heard of this place, it WAS this place! Wow and my dad said they met up here! Def. Need to see it :D

 
At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Jason said...

WOW she even said she remembers making that fried shrimp dish!

 
At 9:09 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Jason,

COOOL! Your mom worked there?! We might have cooked for us! Hey, could you ask her for the recipe for that shrimp dish? If you don't want to post it here, could you e-mail me? elmomonster75 @ yahoo.com

If she's been sworn to secrecy, that's okay too!

THANKS!

 
At 9:46 PM, Anonymous Jason said...

Lol, my mom said it was simply tempura batter! Well go home and start trying! :D

she's probably not saying EVERYTHING cause she was busy but im sure its not much more, i mean viet food isn't very complicated. i asked if she wanted to go see it again but she said no.. bad memories? She said when she was working there, the owner was a woman, it was only her cooking and serving and bussing and the owner just was at the register... bad memories indeed, and she said every day after work she was all greasy from frying food.. yuck!

 

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