Kristin Nguyen, executive chef-owner of Garlic & Chives in Garden Grove, serves lots of Vietnamese classics in her eatery, many of them adapted with her own unique twists. Dishes such as pomelo salad up with pork belly and spicy crab sautéed in tamarind sauce, are stables on her menu. There are also less expected offerings such as crunchy sea salt garlic (french) fries or chicken wings. All are perfect for shared-plate dining.
Nguyen makes some of the very best fresh spring rolls I’ve tasted, still salad-like, but hearty enough to feel like a meal. She spikes them with strips of sautéed salmon belly. The fish is silky-rich in the center, but crisp and crunchy on the exterior. She was inspired to create dishes using salmon, with its wealth of omega-3 fatty acids, after her husband Dan had heart bypass surgery.
Along with a luscious blend of herbs, vegetables and salmon, each spring roll includes a thin tube of rolled-up fried wonton skin, browned crisp and toothsome; it’s an addition that she said was inspired by the cuisine of central Vietnam. On the side, a perky tamarind-based dipping sauce adds the perfect degree of acidity.
Born in Vietnam, she came to the U.S. when she was seven. The oldest of eight, her father influenced her love of cooking, encouraging her to cook alongside him as they prepared meals for her siblings. She did catering before opening the restaurant three years ago, having studied at Art Institute of California in Santa Ana.
“I like to be unique with my dishes,” she explained when she joined me in my home kitchen to prepare spring rolls for the subject of a how-to video. “Even with the most traditional dishes, I want to make them fun and hip. A lot of restaurants cater to a specific generation. I want my restaurant to be where everyone, age-wise, wants to eat.”
Few people know: She has a business degree from California State University, Fullerton.
Two restaurant favs: SUSHISAMBA in Las Vegas, an eatery that specializes in Japanese-Peruvian-Brazilian fusion is a treasure. She adores the tapa-style fare, including a delectable rib-eye steak with mushroom sauce topped with a poached egg, as well as the wonton-skin “taco shells” filled with seafood. Nobu at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, is another favorite. Their crab inspired her baked King crab dish that is halved and topped with a mayonnaise sauce and masago roe.
Drink of choice: Crown Royal and Coke. She also fancies red wine, finishing with a sweeter white muscato wine. She describes herself as a “fun girl.”
Secret talent: A passion for construction, design and décor drives much of her off-restaurant hours. She designed the restaurant, painted banquettes and refurbished the chairs.
Chive sweethearts: Chives, both Asian and European varieties, are one of her favorite ingredients. She admires their delicate appearance and delicious flavor. Thus, they are part of the restaurant’s name.
Garlic & Chives’ Salmon Spring Rolls
(Goi Cuon Ca Salmon)
Yield: 6 spring rolls
Marinade: 2 tablespoons oyster sauce, 1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil, 1 large garlic clove (chopped)
6 (1 1/2- to 2-ounces each) rectangles of skin-on salmon belly
About 6 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more if needed
6 wonton wrappers, rolled into tight cylinders
1/4 cup tamarind paste, see cook’s notes
2 tablespoons fish sauce, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon chili paste
1 garlic clove, minced
Thinly sliced fresh red Thai chili, to taste, see cook’s notes
6 (8 1/2-inch diameter) rice paper
6 leaves of green curly-edged lettuce, lower root half removed
Cilantro leaves and mint leaves
One 2 1/2-inch long skin-on section of cucumber, halved lengthwise, seed beds removed, cut into sticks (6 sticks needed)
2 1/2-inch long peeled carrot sticks (6 sticks needed)
- In glass or ceramic bowl combine marinade ingredients; stir to combine. Add salmon and toss. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.
- Heat oil on medium-high heat, adding more if needed; when hot, add wonton skin cylinders. Fry until golden brown, turning as needed. Drain on paper towels. Add salmon to hot oil; sauté until nicely browned, turning to caramelize both sides. Drain on paper towels.
- Prepare dipping sauce: In bowl, combine tamarind paste, fish sauce, sugar, chili paste and garlic; stir to combine. Add chili slices and stir to combine. Set aside.
- Spring rolls: In a medium bowl, add enough warm water to fill 3/4 full. Rotate rice paper in water until just barely pliable. Place on clean, dry surface. Working on the half closest to you, place lettuce leaf colorful-side down. Top with cilantro, mint, cucumber, carrot and fried wonton cylinder. Pull up lettuce just enough to tuck 1 fried salmon belly under it. Roll up until only a 1/4 portion of rice paper is free. Fold over sides and add 2 Asian chives so they will extend out the sides; finish rolling up, burrito style. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 6 spring rolls. Serve with dipping sauce.
Garlic & Chives is at 9892 Westminster Blvd., #311, Garden Grove. 714-591-5196
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.” Photos by Curt Norris.