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American Way takes you on a five-city tour of the best Vietnamese cuisine in America.

IT’S BRASH. FRESH. Invigorating. Artful. Vietnamese cuisine mesmerizes with its kaleidoscopic whorl of abundance: fresh herbs and greens, delicate soups, hearty sandwiches, and robust curries. Its cooks are almost obsessive in their lust for lucid contrast -- cooked and raw, hot and chilled, sweet and sour, spicy and mild, crispy and smooth. And you reap the dividends earned from those obsessions.

The distinctiveness of Vietnamese cuisine is derived from a place and people whisked with subtle influences from Chinese and French colonial rule. Its soulful tease is unlike any other in the culinary canon. And virtually every American city is blessed with at least one Vietnamese restaurant.

While rice plays a central role in the cuisine’s unique vernacular, what sets Vietnamese food apart is the fact that noodles are the dominant force. Vietnam is essentially a noodle-crazed nation, with people regularly devouring strands from restaurants, roadside stands, and their dining tables at home from dawn to dusk and beyond. Made in a variety of thicknesses, Vietnamese noodles are rendered from rice, wheat, egg, and mung beans. They are eaten wet in broth but are strained in main dishes; they can be served crispy (such as in mi xao don, which is deep-fried egg noodles topped with seafood and vegetables) as well as cold in salads (such as in bun bo, a mix of rice vermicelli, grilled beef, lemongrass, lettuce, and mint). They also work well in soup or as a soup accompaniment.

But while rice and noodles largely form the nucleus of Vietnamese sustenance, lemongrass, chilies, and Kaffir lime leaves generate the spark. And the cuisine’s soul resides in the ghostly presence of fish sauce, a formula of fish, water, and salt that’s fermented into a heady condiment that’s not unlike a strong cheese. The unfurling of this tempting culinary pastiche across America is as fascinating as it is tragic.

VIETNAM IS A slender nation of more than 86 million that fishhooks around Southeast Asia. Within its narrowness lies a surprising regional distinctiveness among the cuisines of the north, south, and midsection, home to the ancient royal city of Hue, where the food -- like canh ngheu (sour clam soup) and cuon diep (mustard leaves swaddling cold rice vermicelli, pork, and herbs) -- exhibits exotic and meticulous touches that possibly trace back to court cooks. The north, the fount of Vietnamese civilization, gave rise to some of the country’s most famous dishes, including pho, the beef noodle soup that later seeped into the south with the flood of refugees who escaped Communist North Vietnam after the 1954 partitioning. According to Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, the north Vietnamese utilized the scraps from cattle slaughtered by the French as a staple in their food, hence the presence of beef tendon and tripe in pho. Because of the north’s colder climate, the cuisine there has a less diverse portfolio of spices and ingredients -- there are fewer herbs and vegetables in it. It’s straightforward, with distinct Chinese influences evident in stir-fries and sautés, and makes use of star anise, cinnamon, black pepper, and soy.

By contrast, food in the south is brash and gutsy, with large portions rich in fresh seafood and with a liberal use of chilies, lemongrass, and sweet fruits. The south is also home to Vietnam’s stewlike curries, which often bathe chicken, beef brisket, and goat, along with a mix of potatoes and carrots, and come with Vietnamese baguettes for sopping up the broth.

The Vietnamization of the American palate can be traced directly to the fall of Saigon in 1975, when large numbers of Vietnamese fled South Vietnam during the incursion by Communist forces and came to the United States. They often arrived penniless and destitute at one of four refugee-processing centers: Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania; and Camp Pendleton, California. Two more waves of Vietnamese immigration followed -- first, in the late 1970s, when “boat people” risked their lives to flee the miseries of Communist re-education camps, and then again during the 1990s, when family members of existing Vietnamese Americans, as well as Amerasian children, arrived on U.S. shores. Today, there are some 1.5 million Vietnamese in the United States, 40 percent of whom live in California; another 12 percent make their home in Texas.

As they settled, they often congregated in enclaves known as Little Saigons that fomented Vietnamese culture in supermarkets and strip malls containing dozens, if not hundreds, of businesses and restaurants.

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The largest and most notable Little Saigon is in California; it fans out into the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove and also into parts of Fountain Valley and Santa Ana in Orange County. In fact, Orange County is home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam.

In Westminster, you can find a series of murals depicting Vietnamese folklore that are tucked deep in the Asian Village, a vast collection of businesses and a cultural courtyard complete with a 12-foot marble statue of Confucius and his disciples in the New Saigon Mall. Orange County’s Little Saigon is perhaps the only area in the country where diners can sample a variety of dishes from each of Vietnam’s three regions. And Vietnamese food in the United States is often better than it is in Vietnam. “Because we are a wealthier country, there are a lot more resources, and cooks can afford to use better ingredients,” Vietnamese food blogger and historian Wandering Chopsticks says.

At Thien An Restaurant in Garden Grove, you can find bo 7 mon (seven courses of beef ), which is a selection of beef dishes often served at weddings. And at Pho Thanh Lich in Westminster, you can enjoy pho -- the beef soup served with side plates filled with bean sprouts, onions, basil, peppers, and wedges of lime -- with thick slices of filet mignon. For northern Vietnamese cuisine, try Vien Dong in Garden Grove, and for cuisine from Vietnam’s central region, there’s Quan Hy in Westminster. To experience the sensuality of southern cuisine, try Brodard in Garden Grove, and, finally, for south meets south, try Rockin’ Crawfish in Westminster, a Cajun twist on Vietnamese from a restaurateur who became smitten with Cajun while living in Houston.

Unlike it is in Orange County, the Vietnamese community in San Jose, California -- the U.S. city with the largest Vietnamese population -- isn’t concentrated. “The Little Saigon in San Jose is kind of a funny thing,” food writer Nguyen says. “There isn’t a nucleus on one street, where it’s jam-packed with Vietnamese shops and restaurants. It’s more dispersed.”

Instead, there are pockets of Vietnamese in south San Jose and just east of city hall, as well as in a corridor along Story Road. For pho, try Pho Bang, or sample authentic southern Vietnamese cuisine at Cao Nguyen. Asian Garden offers a variant on seven courses of beef: nine courses of fish, widely regarded as the best progression of fish courses in the Bay Area. And for more-authentic flavors laced with homemade sauces, try Vung Tau restaurant.

Moving up the West Coast, Seattle’s Little Saigon differs from San Jose’s in that it is more concentrated; however, it’s still not as large as Orange County’s. According to Leslie Kelly, restaurant critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle’s Little Saigon resides in the city’s International District, which is dominated by Chinatown. In the 1980s, the district’s boundary started creeping east of Interstate 5 and north of South Lane Street, and a Little Saigon with a concentration of Vietnamese-owned businesses and restaurants, including dozens of pho shops, formed. “They range from hole-in-the wall places to fairly nice, upscale settings,” Kelly says.

For more high-end dining, there is Monsoon on Capitol Hill, one of Seattle’s wealthiest districts. Monsoon incorporates refined ingredients such as Berkshire pork, from the prized Berkshire breed of hog. This contrasts with Pho Viet Anh, a simple mom-and-pop shop that features a vegetarian pho with a savory light broth. For Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, baguettes packed with pickled vegetables, cucumbers, onions, and head cheese, try Baguette Box, where you can pick them up for around $5 to $8. And Tamarind Tree offers a tasty seven courses of beef. For a distinctive Asian culinary experience, visit Saigon Bistro at the food court of Uwajimaya, a grocery store filled with specialty foods and ingredients for virtually any form of Asian cooking. The Bistro is acclaimed for its pho.

On the other side of the country, a large Vietnamese populace can be found in Philadelphia. There, after years of existing primarily in the city’s Chinatown, the Vietnamese people and their restaurants have largely begun settling near the Italian Market in South Philadelphia in
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recent years. China Town is still home to restaurants serving traditional Vietnamese fare from comprehensive menus, though, such as Vietnam Restaurant and Vietnam Palace. “We’re still seeing first-wave immigrant cooking,” says Craig LaBan, restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There’s not a lot of contemporary Vietnamese cooking going on here yet.” Sample the rich pho at Pho 75, or taste the creative complex flavors at Nam Phuong. And get great South Philly Vietnamese hoagies stuffed with creamy pâté, crunchy slices of head cheese, pickled veggies, and thick smears of house-made mayonnaise at Cafe Huong Lan.

The largest populations of Vietnamese immigrants outside of San Jose and Garden Grove are found in Houston, Texas, where many flocked to escape the high cost of living in Southern California. “Vietnamese people came to the Gulf Coast because they were in the seafood business and it was like home,” says Robb Walsh, food writer for the Houston Press. “It was tropical and hot. They felt at home both culturally and culinarily. They became big fans of crawfish.”

Houston’s Little Saigon, officially named such by the city in 2004, is strung along Bellaire Boulevard, west of the city of Bellaire. Among Houston’s many Vietnamese restaurants, Que Huong is perhaps the most authentic. You can get beef five ways at Saigon Pagolac, including one with a Tex-Mex twist: lemongrass-marinated beef that you cook right at your table to create Vietnamese fajitas, complete with herbs and vegetables and all rolled in moistened rice paper. For those with a less venturesome palate, Le Viet features crisp, clean Anglo-friendly Vietnamese. Alpha Bakery in Houston’s Hong Kong City Mall serves Vietnamese baguette sandwiches, and for noodles -- the stuff of Vietnamese craziness -- try Tan Tan, which specializes in some of Vietnam’s renowned noodle creations, including mi (egg noodles), bun (vermicelli), and hu tieu (rice noodles).

Crazy yet? If not, you’ll be unhinged after a Vietnamese meal in any of these cities.

a vietnamese eating guide

orange county,

brodard restaurant
9892 westminster avenue, #r
garden grove,
(714) 530-1744,

pho thanh lich
14500 brookhurst street
(714) 531-5789

quan hy vietnamese restaurant
9727 bolsa avenue
(714) 775-7179

rockin’ crawfish
9211 bolsa avenue
(714) 894-4536

thien an restaurant
13518 harbor boulevard, suite a6
garden grove,
(714) 530-4955

vien dong restaurant
14271 brookhurst street
garden grove,
(714) 531-8253

san jose, california
asian garden
905 south bascom avenue
(408) 279-8764,

cao nguyen restaurant
2549 south king road, #a-16
408) 270-9610,

pho bang
1705 tully road
(408) 251-0896

vung tau restaurant
535 east santa clara street
(408) 288-9055,

seattle, washington
baguette box
1203 pine street
(206) 332-0220,

615 19th avenue east
(206) 325-2111,

pho viet anh restaurant
372 roy street
(206) 352-1881,

saigon bistro at uwajimaya
507 south weller street
(206) 621-2085

tamarind tree
1036 south jackson street, #a
(206) 860-1404,

philadelphia, pennsylvania
cafe huong lan
1037 south eighth street>
(215) 629-9966

nam phuong
1110-1120 washington avenue
(215) 468-0410,

pho 75
1122 washington avenue, #f
(215) 271-5866

vietnam palace
222 north 11th street
(215) 592-9596,

vietnam restaurant
221 north 11th street
(215) 592-1163,

houston, texas
alpha bakery
11209 bellaire boulevard, #c-02
(281) 988-5222

le viet
11328 westheimer
(281) 293-8883

que huong
8200 wilcrest drive, suite 27
(281) 495-2814

saigon pagolac
9600 bellaire boulevard, #119
(713) 988-6106

tan tan
6816 ranchester
(713) 771-1268,