Dat Thanh - Westminster
A post by Dave Lieberman on OC Weekly's Stick a Fork In It food blog started it all. That was the fuse that led to an explosion of press coverage for Dat Thanh, a tiny Little Saigon restaurant that has emerged into the limelight as The One that challenged the monopoly of Brodard, the Goliath of nem nuong rolls. From there, subsequent articles by the LA Times and OC Register followed. It was a lot of attention fast—a white hot fire of free and deserved publicity that begat building-wrapping lines for a postage-stamp-size of a place that only has, at most, four tables.
Its owner, Hai Nguyen, of course, has been ecstatic for all that’s happened to his family’s little eatery, though, quite honestly, it's hard to tell when the guy isn't happy. Come to his store these days (don't worry the fervor has calmed down a bit since those articles published) and you'll get to chat with him. He’ll tell you the past month has been insane. He’ll tell you that he’s honored, humbled and hopeful that his family’s diligence and hard work seemed to finally pay off literally overnight. He even told us that he’s now considering opening another restaurant.
If you’ve read all the press yourself, you won’t see any new info about the food here: only a reaffirmation of what everyone else has said. Dat Thanh’s nem nuong rolls are wonderful—every bit the worthy challenger to Brodard’s.
First, there’s the nem nuong itself. They make it in-house, of course. The chewy, ruddy, half-cylinder cut lengthwise can be compared to a sausage, though it isn’t one. It can also be said it’s kind of like luncheon meat, though it isn’t that either. It sports a peppery bite, a tactile and playful texture that bounces back up like a spring-loaded hot dog if it had this kind of personality. But above all you taste the honest, hand-made care behind each porky construct; how the Zen-simplicity and see-through translucency of the skin-tight wetted rice paper holds back such wonders.
Inside the roll, it is the heartiness of their nem nuong that sings more soulfully than Brodard’s.
There are other noted differences to the Brodard roll, as has been said. The tucked-in twirled cigar of deep fried egg roll skin is thinner here, resulting in a less skull-rattling crunch than its cross-town rival. And cilantro-averse people should be aware that Dat Thanh’s rolls contain chopped bits of the herb mixed in with the lettuce.
And then there’s the warm, pinkish, thick dipping medium; the nem nuong roll’s life-force; the ambrosial liquid that has become, at least in Little Saigon, the secret-sauce of secret-sauces. Brodard’s nem nuong sauce has intrigued and beguiled the masses more than anything else, a recipe more guarded than nuclear launch codes. And here it is cracked: Dat Thanh’s is everything Brodard’s formula is, except spicier, tangier and less sugary, with all of the magic.
Yes, the sauce and the rolls are great here. Your first pilgrimage should and will be made in sole search of them, but every subsequent trip should be for everything else on the menu. Though a few pages long, their roster is deceptively made up of just the basics you know, done well. The BBQ pork is luscious and a tofu-skin-wrapped shrimp mousse sheds its crispy shards like a flaky croissant— as good as any I’ve ever had. All these proteins are rearranged and combined with others on top of rice or a wispy cold noodle called bun an doused with an equally lip-smacking, if basic, golden fish sauce.
But that’s not all: the nem noung that filled the rolls can also be had on top of rice, basted with a sticky, sugary glaze and grilled till slightly smoky. As Hai will tell you, it’s the same meat, but it tastes completely different when you eat it this way. He’s right.
Drizzle the whole plate with a generous pour of their aforementioned nuoc mam from a carafe, a brew that Hai revealed they make by boiling down the best caliber of fish sauce to concentrate the sweetness.
After every bite and minute spent of your visit chatting with Hai, you realize you are no longer just at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant that dared to challenge Brodard. In fact, before long you forget all the articles, the hype, and the hoopla. You’re just at a good, decent Vietnamese restaurant, with a good, decent man taking care of you.
10032 McFadden Ave.
Westminster, CA 92683
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