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
7971 Westminster Blvd.
Westminster, CA 92683