My first dining adventure in Little Saigon was the culinary equivalent of the Hindenburg disaster. No one at the noodle house spoke English. The menu was an indecipherable hieroglyphic of unfamiliar words, accents, double accents, and diacritical markings. This mystified me in 1985, as it does now.
Somehow, we ordered. We had no idea what. Plates arrived. Some bore raw meat, others shrimp. Still others were heaped with onions, hot peppers, bean sprouts, and lush stems of fresh mint and basil. And what were those things layered like a plate of tortillas but stretched like Ace bandages? Our server wedged a bubbling hot pot into the middle of it all, and then left us amid the tempting aromas of beef broth and fresh herbs without further instruction. Oh, the humanity!
We stared, looking like Amish tourists at the Consumer Electronics Show. And it occurred to me then that, without a little direction, I was likely to miss a lot of great culinary adventures here.
This month’s cover story, which begins here, is a delayed reaction to that long-ago sense of helpless befuddlement. Since then, Orange County has evolved into one of the great dining crossroads of the world. The critical mass of Pacific Rim cuisines that have found their way here during the past few decades has brought some of the best food on the planet to our doorstep.
Much of it has become as ubiquitous as burgers and pizza, including Japanese sushi, Vietnamese pho, and Thailand’s pad thai. But a lot—Filipino sisig, Indonesian gado gado, and Korea’s dolsot bibimbap—is out there, just waiting to be discovered. Our intention with this issue is to explain, demystify, deconstruct, and generally whet the appetites of Orange Coast readers for the wonders that await, probably within a few minutes’ drive of wherever they live. So think of our guide as a culinary GPS that you can use, whenever you want, to taste the best of Asia.
Martin J. Smith
Illustration by John Ueland