, Schmestaurant Week. O.C.'s annual eatery bargain-a-palooza is great and all. But since it's over now, where's a shallow-pocketed diner to go for value? Little Saigon, that's where. It's here that footlong, meat-ladened banh mi sandwiches still tick under $3; bowls of pho typically retail for less than $5; and there's a place actually called The $1.99 Restaurant
It's microeconomic theory at work. The dense concentration of Vietnamese businesses centered around the cities of Garden Grove, Westminster, and parts of Santa Ana and Fountain Valley have always competed fiercely to earn your fickle patronage with prices that almost seem unsustainable.
Take for example my complete steak frites (and fried egg) dinner you see above. It's a measly $8.95 at the new Lua Bistrot
-- a toll that wouldn't get you past other restaurants' valet.
If you think I've somehow managed to finagle that fancy steak dinner by slumming it at a sticky-table hole-in-the-wall with an incongruous name, take a look again. I've got pictures to prove that Lua Bistrot
outclasses a lot of CdM's and Laguna Beach's overwrought eateries.
Nevermind that it shares a parking lot with a 99-Cent-Only
store. With leather black seats, minimalist black-n-white design, and an open kitchen where bonafide gourmet chefs whisk and saute in front of the leaping fires of a stove, it feels as chic as something out of Miami's South Beach if you subtracted the European sports cars and the silicone-enhanced, half-starved fashion models. And besides that, it's probably the plaza's low rent that affords them the ability to charge so little.
The money saved is spent on such premium ingredients as the steak that I had, which I am confident would cost me double at the Whole Foods butcher. It's a gristle-free cut of filet as big as my fist (the menu has it as an 8 oz rib eye*). Slicing it was effortless, as if my knife was a red hot iron and the beef a gigantic cube of Jell-O.
More surprising than the sticker price is its sponge cake-like tenderness. This was a high quality hunk of meat cooked expertly to the perfect degree of doneness: medium, like I asked. Dissecting it was almost pornographic, revealing a carnal, reddish-pink. It's also rested just enough so that it doesn't bleed too much of its juice to dilute the carefully nuanced red wine reduction that's ladled over it.
Its surplus of flavor also comes from the browned outer crust, which is a crispy by-product, no doubt, of a long and loving fry in what I imagine must be clarified butter. It concentrates the flavors, and fuses the black peppercorn stuck onto its outer strata deeper into the protein hunk.
The fat fries that came along were tossed in bits of minced garlic so bold I can still smell it in my breath a day after I had it. The side salad uses a sweet vinaigrette, fancy microgreens, but also shredded pickled carrots and daikon, a subtle but knowing Vietnamese touch.
And of course, there's the sunny-side-up egg, which was fried in the way all eggs should be fried: in lots of oil so that the edges turn lacy, crunchy, and brown. My belief is that even a great dish can be made better with a fried egg; especially when it's done like this.
Other specialities complete a list on the white side of the two-sided menu they give you. Flip it over and you see a black side with the cheaper Viet staples of rice and bun noodles subbing for potatoes and pasta.
I soon discover these dishes are discounted temporarily even further to ridiculously low lows.
"All of this is $4.95", our server said as he ran this finger down the list which included a gorgeous slab of grilled pork chop (com suon) so unctuous and deliciously fatty it must have come from a particularly lazy hog.
It's plated with the same salad as my steak and a rice dome formed from an upturned bowl. The pork chop is seeped all the way through with a lemongrass aroma and a sugary sweetness that almost makes it taste like caramel.
Our next surprise came when our server said, "I'll be back with your check and your dessert".
Wait, did he say dessert?
In the distance I saw our guy pour sugar into a ramekin and then witnessed the poof of a blowtorch, which could only mean he was making a creme brulee. "Surely, he's not giving us a creme brulee for free?" we asked each other.
Oh yes. The creme brulee was free alright. But not just one. We both got complimentary creme brulees. The offer, I suspect, is done in part to get word-of-mouth to spread. Still, it's an uncommonly generous gesture even in the oasis of bargains that is Little Saigon. And let me be the first to tell you: free creme brulees will always taste amazing, and most especially when it follows a $8.95 steak dinner that costs $30 everywhere else.
OC Restaurant Week? We love you. But Little Saigon is forever.
9892 Westminster Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844*Note: It is possible that since I came later in the evening, they decided to substitute the normal cut of rib eye with the filet mignon usually reserved for the filet au poivre. Or maybe they do it all the time!
THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
O.C.'s Lenten Fish Fries