Friday, August 17, 2007

Nha Hang $1.99 Restaurant - Westminster

Your eyes do not deceive you. This restaurant actually calls itself "$1.99 Restaurant." It is, without a doubt, the most blatant attempt to attract cheapskates since the invention of the 99-Cent-Only store.

But guess what?

The food is decent and the restaurant is surprisingly spacious. Those expecting a hole-in-the-wall would only be half right. There are holes in the garden-themed wallpaper alright, but not as many as you'd think.

Though without a working air conditioner, the room swelters like Saigon in summer. It's especially stifling now, in the thick heat of mid-August. The best place to sit is underneath one of the ceiling fans; anywhere else and you'll sweat your way through dinner.

What the restaurant doesn't realize is that there's a better way to save on the electric bill: Turn down that warbly Viet Pop.

It's pumped at full volume and drowns out any and all conscious thought. If you sit in the back where the speakers blare, you can forget about having that romantic heart-to-heart. But really, by the time you've grown the balls to take a date to The $1.99 Restaurant, you should already be past the getting-to-know-you part of the relationship.

The servers, who seem immune to the aural assault, are craggy old men, gruff in appearance and demeanor. Every crease on their faces speaks more about them than they ever could or would tell you. Conversation and interaction with them will be brief. They're there long enough to take your order and later, to drop off the check.

Don't even think about asking them for water. They'll tell you with a straight face that they don't have it. If you want water, you'll have to buy it. Bottled. For a buck.

These folks may charge $1.99 for a hot meal, but they're not suckers. They know how cheap you are!

If you're going to spend money on a drink, you might as well make it a Thai Iced Tea or their Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice. Both are $1.75. The latter is more orange-ade than orange juice; sweetened with sugar, thinned with water, and invigoratingly refreshing.

Now that you've got your drinks, choose your meal from a menu of eleven items (which also fits neatly on the back of their business card).

Seven items retail for $1.99. Three are $2.75. And one -- the most expensive of all their cheap meals -- goes for the princely sum of $3.25.

This is the Cornish Game Hen with Fried Rice, where half of a bird is deep fried whole till the skin's a crackly gold and the meat moist. A dome of orange rice is served as a side, but not worth the extra stomach room it will claim. There's also a bowl of soy dipping sauce. It's very salty and gunked up with coagulated pieces of something unidentifiable.

One $2.75 dish is the Broken Rice with BBQ Pork and Egg. And it's as gut-filling as a meal going for double the price. The BBQ Pork is, in fact, a whole pork chop grilled competently that tastes, well, like a pork chop. Although it could've benefited from a longer soak in the marinade, oil-wilted green onions that top the meat make up for any shortcomings. The egg, however, is as close to perfect as sunny-side up egg gets. The white is set, but the yolk dribbles into the rice like sauce. With a few hits of Sriracha, it's something of a hangover cure.

But I know what you want to hear about: How are the cheapo plates of food?

Surprisingly good, actually.

The Rice Noodle Soup is my favorite there, at any price. The broth is steaming and savory, the noodle slurpably satisfying. And in my serving, they included a hunk of pork still stuck to the bone. And with each sip of soup, I encountered crunchy granules of concentrated porkiness. My guess: Pork cracklins, which aims straight at my heart (figuratively and literally).

Others in the $1.99 category have their strange quirks, but all are worth the sticker price.

The lacy egg rolls in the Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio has a factory-produced and thawed-from-the-freezer aftertaste, and the BBQ pork are sliced into miserly matchsticks. But if you can accept these components as decorative elements, you'll find the cold noodles wispy and the crunch of the raw vegetables fantastic. And don't discount those crushed peanuts. They liven up the party just as much as that side bowl of nouc cham does.

Squid florets, bites of tofu, shrimp, and a few fat cylinders of krab are the protein choice in their Xao Thap Cam, a stir fry to top rice or noodles. The gravy needs a little more salt, but it's chock-full of veggies. Consider your daily allowance of fiber fulfilled when eating this meal. Crisp-tender broccoli, carrots, bamboo shoots and baby corn make for a dish that looks more expensive than the sum of its parts. Opt for it as topping to the nest of crispy noodle; a better medium for the gravy than plain ol' rice.

So there it is: Hot meals offered in a hot room at a good value. Maybe if that sprite Rachel Ray pays a visit, they'll actually think about turning on the A/C.

Nha Hang $1.99 Restaurant
(714)893-8364
7971 Westminster Blvd.
Westminster, CA 92683

37 Comments:

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Deb said...

O.K. Elmo.....you have reached a new pinacle! $1.99...I LOVE it!

 
At 6:47 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Deb,

Are you sure "pinnacle" is the word? I think I've "reached a new low"...HAHAHA!!! Low prices that is!!!

 
At 7:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why, oh WHY do you do this to me, not even a week after I left LA??? Food here in New York is expensive! Where crispy, fresh produce is nearly mythical!

 
At 9:27 AM, Anonymous JB said...

Monster Munching is such a "must read"...I can't believe I've never heard of this $1.99 restaurant before. And now I know everything I need to know, including the fact that there's a cover charge (or a "one-drink minimum") even for water. I want the Broken Rice with BBQ Pork and Egg...with extra green onions, please (for which I'm sure I'll be charged!) Thanks for the scoop, Elmo.

 
At 12:27 PM, Blogger Wandering Chopsticks said...

Elmo,

She's a keeper if she's willing to let you take her to a $1.99 restaurant!

Hehe, I remember passing by this place all the time and my friend would say the noodles are pretty tasty.

 
At 7:56 PM, Blogger Vegasbuff said...

I have friends who have been eating here for years and they say although it's not gonna win any awards, its surprisingly good for the price.

 
At 9:14 PM, Blogger Krizia said...

You gotta be kidding me haha. I just got back from Magic Wok! I'll leave it at that :)

For now!

 
At 12:57 AM, Blogger Christine D. said...

Several years ago, one of my uncles used to cook at either this place or some other $1.99 restaurant, and his cooking habits made me too scared to ever eat at these joints. It's best that I don't tell you how he cooks, but at least he doesn't work there anymore! haha =)

My Grandma always says how good these $1.99 restaurants are for the price. I used to think that she was nuts, but I guess I'm wrong!

 
At 8:48 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Anonymous,

On the contrary, I envy you! NYC's dining scene is an apt consolation prize. And let's not forget OC's ridiculously high housing prices.

JB,

Thanks! When I first heard this tip, I couldn't believe it. How can a restaurant survive just by charging $1.99...well they're smarter than I gave 'em credit for. The money is in the drinks. And who's not going to buy drinks, especially in that swelter box!

Wandering Chopsticks,

This restaurant is the "Does she like me for me or for my money" litmus test!

Vegasbuff,

Exactly. Not mind blowing. Just better than you'd expect for the price.

Krizia,

Oh I hope, I hope, I hope you liked Magic Wok. Being a Filipina, I'm sure you have high standards for the cuisine. I await with baited breath to see what you thought of it.

Christine,

Now you've got me curious about your uncle! But your comment left me wondering, is there more of these restaurants than the one I wrote about?!

 
At 9:25 AM, Blogger KirkK said...

Amazing.....$1.99!

 
At 1:30 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

I remember eating here when I was young: it scared me to death. I wondered how food could be so cheap and realized that they probably didn't spend money on cleaning the place. Nonetheless, I still ate there wondering if the health department would come by.

 
At 6:31 PM, Blogger That Girl Can Eat said...

That pork egg and rice looks delish! I'll have to go soon!

 
At 10:21 AM, Blogger nhbilly said...

One of my favorite place for a poor college student.
FYI - the sauce for the chicken is I think the marinade for the chicken that has been cooked down/reduce to the thicken dipping sauce.

 
At 2:48 PM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

*sigh* You beat me to another restaurant, you bad bad man. I've been collecting materials there for months. Ah well. c'est la vie.

 
At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Jit Fong said...

I used to go to a $1.99 Restaurant on Garden Grove Boulevard. I think it must be run by the same people because it has the same awesome cornish game hen. I used to work in Anaheim and so it was a short drive away. I got to say, I was addicted to the cornish game hen, but I eventually stopped going because I got GROSSED OUT by the people who would go to the porn shop next door.

I also remember the forks and other utensils being alternately wet or sticky. So, not great place to bring your boss. I think if you try to get the food to go, they jack up the price from $1.99 to like $3.50. But mmmm, that cornish game hen ...

 
At 6:16 PM, Anonymous kabuki said...

The menu slightly varies at the other locations...but they all have the the chicken & rice which is my fave. The Che Thai is really yummy @west. blvd.

 
At 9:26 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Kirk,

It is amazing. For the price of two cups o'joe at Starbucks, you could have dinner for two here.

Kevin,

I know what you mean. I was scared at first. But then I remember all the street food I ate in Indonesia, where cockroaches would scurry beneath my feet while I'm eating, and I think to myself, what the heck am I worried about?!

That Girl Can Eat,

For the price, it's surprisingly good! And filling!

nhbilly,

That makes sense. It did taste a bit like reduction, but a crude one. I used it sparingly.

CP,

Hey, doesn't mean that you can't write about it! I'd love to see and read about your experience!

Jit Fong,

Every table had that cornish game hen. And the take out orders were hopping too, and yep, they charge an extra $0.75 for those. I think they justify it as the cost for the box. In fact, I think if by some miracle someone couldn't finish a dish and asked for a box, they'd get charged $0.75. These people thought of every conceivable angle to shave off a few cents (no A/C, no free water) and earn a few cents (extra charge for to-go, no free water). Geniuses!

kabuki,

I've got to try their desserts...Che Tai was on my mind last time, but alas, we went to a dessert place that sold their desserts for $5 a piece afterward...had great cakes though.

 
At 2:47 PM, Blogger Taylor, Michael and Sue said...

WOW!.....have to try this place out.

 
At 3:28 PM, Blogger momopi said...

The other $1.99 Viet food place is in Garden Grove, by intersection of Harbor & GG Blvd. Go west from intersection on GG Blvd, restaurant is on north side. Um... order to go if possible.

If you really want to save $ on food, go to Westminster for Viet sandwitches and BBQ pork buns. Bit safer. Eat at $1.99 place at your own risk.

 
At 3:13 AM, Blogger Juliet said...

Don't laugh, but I got teary-eyed reading your review. This is the kind of restaurant Dave would take me to in the early stages if our relationship, and even in the first years of our marriage. The food wasn't that inexpensive, though. We are going to have to do there when we visit OC next year.

 
At 1:24 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

taylor, michael and sue,

I hope you like it. One thing is for sure, it is worth the price you'll pay for. Any higher though, not so much.

momopi,

But the risk is half the fun!

Juliet,

Aww...that's sweet that this brought back memories. It also confirms one fact, you're a cool gal for not minding being taken out on a date to such a place!

 
At 11:46 AM, Blogger eatdrinknbmerry said...

A-ha, that's the $1.99 restaurant haha. For years i've been hearing about it. Thanks for posting this, now I know where to go with only $2.15 in my pocket, which is quite often.

 
At 7:27 PM, Blogger V said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 1:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever gone to Favori in Little Saigon? they have really good fried fish.

 
At 10:15 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

EDBM,

Same here buddy! Would you believe they take credit cards?! I don't even think they have a minimum purchase requirement (or perhaps I never bothered to check).

Anonymous,

I have! I like that place, except isn't the catfish baked?

 
At 3:01 PM, Blogger eatdrinknbmerry said...

elmo haha. that would so be me charging $2.99 on my debit card. kinda embarrassing but what can i do. better than bringing my jar of loose change haha.

 
At 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i tried to use a credit card today and got a dirty look and then "cash only" response. oh well..

 
At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Leanne said...

Their cornish hen sauce is my favorite! I wonder what secret ingredients go in there.

 
At 8:58 AM, Blogger Adhi said...

I've always ordered the cornish game hen. Best deal in town.

 
At 11:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

some of the foods may seem a little quirky to you but that's how my mom actually make some of this food :] like the like the broken rice dish. the fried egg is actually meant to replace the cha (baked egg) because not a lot of people have the time to make cha over and over again.

personally i love $1.99 especially when i'm in a rush for work or something because they have fast service... and if you actually ask for a glass of ice water, they'll give it to you ^^ no need to actually buy a bottle of water.

 
At 1:12 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

EDBM,

All forms of payment are accepted. Except maybe bartered goods.

Anonymous,

The cashier must have had a bad day. Surprisingly, this place doesn't follow the "customer is always right" credo. But would you believe I actually charged $2.14 here once?

Leanne,

Not sure what's in that gravy/sauce, but because of its gelatinous consistency, maybe I don't wanna know.

adhi,

Everything's a pretty good deal, but that chicken, mos def!

Anon,

You must be really pretty or ruggedly handsome, because no amount of charm I can muster can get them to give me a glass of water for free.

 
At 2:15 AM, Blogger thanh said...

Elmo, how do I put this...
If you live in Little Saigon and you eat at 1.99 restaurant at least once a week, you might be Vietnamese!
I'm a college student and students like me jack coins from friends and search high and "low" in the sofas for loose change for a good meal. Beside from pho, banh mi and com tam, 1.99 is kinda like, Taco bell for mexican food. it's an emblem for broke asian students who has ridiculous loans just to go to community college.
The sauce for the cornish hens: the "unidentifiable droppings" are actually pieces of onions, so you don't have to worry about a thing. and yes, the utensils are sticky, the air is hot, the music is horrible, waiter is rude, but when you are desperate like me, I would really eat it while sitting on the kitchen floor if it means 1.99

 
At 2:02 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Thanh,

Onions eh? Well that's not so scary then. And although I'm not Vietnamese, I feel like one! I just ate com tam for lunch today also. Not at this place, but at another place I'll write about soon.

 
At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey guys,
What do you expect to get with $1.99?

Stop criticizing !!!!!

 
At 11:52 AM, Blogger nary said...

I went there once... like 10 years ago and didn't appreciate the hair I found in my noodles. My brother convinced me to go there again last week... and surprisingly the place look more clean and the food was more presentable. I had the crispy chicken and it tasted just like the chicken I got from another viet restaurant for $7.95! that's like $10 with tip. I will definitely go back to this $1.99 place! It's the best. I just won't get noodles ever.

 
At 3:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love this place!!

 
At 1:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Join our 1.99 restaurant group on facebook!

 

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