My first O.C. global dining adventure involved a cafe in Little Saigon. Four of us had come to try authentic Vietnamese. Unable to read the menu or understand recommendations, we ordered by guessing.
Comedy ensued. Plates heaped with fresh basil and other herbs began to arrive. We sampled them as if they were salads, since we had no idea what we were supposed to do with them.
A hot pot was set boiling in the middle of the table, fragrant but puzzling. The server brought plates of raw meat and fish, as well as other mysterious leafy things. And what were we supposed to do with these translucent, almost fleshy, rice-paper wrappers? Not only were we without instructions, but we’d ordered so much food that at one point the cook peeked out of the kitchen, apparently to gauge the size of the crowd. But it was just us.
That was three decades ago, and it’s hard to fathom now, given my current reverence for pho and banh mi, as well as dishes from Thailand, Korea, and other Asian countries. Since that first tentative step into the county’s vibrant international cuisine scene, I’ve gleefully sampled every- thing from Spanish calamari bocadillo in Costa Mesa to Jamaican jerk salmon in Laguna Beach. I’ve burned my fingers on Persian sangak bread hot from a Laguna Niguel oven, and on a scald- ing stone bowl in Irvine from which I was eating Korean bibimbap.
Miles Clements, who writes the Global Diner column in our dining section, celebrates the county’s culinary diversity in this month’s cover story on O.C. dishes from around the world. He’s the guide I wish I’d had 30 years ago.