Last weekend Regina, Bennet, and I were driving north on the 405 freeway after a pleasant visit with some good friends in San Juan Capistrano. But a few hours of lounging, swimming, and hot-tubbing exacted a price — we all seemed to realize simultaneously how famished we were. This is hardly a surprising condition for me since I live on the ragged edge of hunger each and every day; it’s the reason I do what I do, after all.
As we neared the exit for Golden West Blvd in Westminster our hunger pangs increased and in a silent accord we agreed to pull off, explore, and find some good grub. After some wandering around, a brief search on the iPhone, and a quick glance at Yelp we located Long Phung, pretty much a hole-in-the-wall family place on a nondescript stretch of Westminster Boulevard.
|Super-authentic fried spring rolls wrapped in fresh leaf lettuce.|
When we walked in we suspected at once that we’d found the right sort of place. It smelled great; there was a rich, almost fatty aroma of charred meats, fish sauce, and spice. And every person in the place was Vietnamese, which was a great indicator of what we could expect; whatever ethnic restaurant you go to should satisfy people of that ethnicity. I probably wouldn’t eat at say, an Indian restaurant populated only by non-Indians, as it would signify a lack of authenticity or quality.
The restaurant is tiny. Long Phung can pack in at most twenty-five people on six or seven cheap tables, and even that would constitute a fire hazard. The clean but packed kitchen is fairly compact as well, with enough room for two, maybe three cooks; I know this since you have to elbow your way through to get to the tiny restroom in back. Even with such limited space the owners of Long Phung have demarcated a tiny performance area in the front window: a white knock-off Stratocaster leaned against a small amp, and a mic stand suggested musical performance. What kind of musical performance? Perhaps we’ll discover on another visit.
|Absolutely superb spring rolls.|
Our friendly waitress spoke a little English and helped us navigate the large menu, which is written entirely in Vietnamese and offered none of the poorly-translated English descriptors you usually find in Asian restaurants. I’m half-Vietnamese but never had a need to learn the language, so I usually require some guidance in such situations. However, since my mother and grandmother are fantastic cooks and have taught me much about Vietnamese cuisine, I knew what I was craving the instant I saw the words cha gio and bun rieu.
Cha gio are the little fried egg rolls (spring rolls sometimes they’re called) of rice paper wrapped around a mixture of crab, egg, pork, glass noodles, bits of carrot, and minced woodear mushrooms. Almost every time I order them a restaurant I’m bummed out — either the wrapper is wrong (time-conscious cooks sometimes substitute a wheat wrapper as rice paper can be quite delicate to work with), the filling is insipid, or the nuoc cham dipping sauce is gutless and lacking the necessary fish sauce oomph. But the cha gio here at Long Phung were flavorful, crisp, and utterly delicious. The lettuce and herb accompaniments were fresh and the house-made chili paste was totally incendiary. I can handle a lot of heat, but even I gasped and grasped my glass of ice water. Yowza!
Bun rieu is a dish of rice noodles in a funky, crabby broth with tomato wedges and a raft-like, floating concoction of ground crab, pork, and egg that is poached in the steaming broth. As with most Vietnamese noodle soups, bun rieu is served with a bunch of bean sprouts and herbs, and slightly unusual, shredded leaf lettuce. Traditionally you add more of less of these fresh garnishes as your palate requires. Now I make a pretty mean bun rieu, and my mother’s is absolutely dynamite. But the version served at Long Phung is different from what I’m familiar with. The broth is briny and deeply funky, tasting not so much of the sea, but of the river. It is seriously robust, and Regina really couldn’t handle it. The noodles were good, the tofu was nice (which I’ve never seen in bun rieu before), the square chunks of poached crab and pork were yummy but smoother in texture and less free-form than I’m used to. Very tasty, very authentic, but certainly not for the Vietnamese food novice.
|Bun Rieu is a robust crab soup with rice noodles. Crazy good.|
Unlike many pho-centric Vietnamese restaurants, Long Phung doesn’t try to offer every possible cut of beef to throw into your broth. It has one option, and I think it’s whatever beef they feel like that day. This was a serious bowl of pho and Regina claimed it’s the best she’s ever eaten. It was definitely one the best I’ve ever tried, and I’ve eaten pho from here to NYC and back again.
My grandmother makes a great pho, and I think my broth is excellent as well. But this broth was…beefy. Profoundly beefy, with a sheen of beef fat floating on the surface, which is a sign of authenticity. This pho was more in the Northern style (I think) with a wider rice noodle, a saltier broth than Southern versions, and fewer herby adornments. The very flavorful beef was comprised of a variety of different cuts – some sirloin, some rare eye of round, some shredded bits of flank, some fatty brisket, and something that was quite possibly beef stomach. Green onions, cilantro, and black pepper were thrown on top. Fearless Regina ate every last bite and proclaimed it fantastic!
|Regina proclaimed this, “The best mutherf@%king pho I’ve ever eaten!”|
Other diners were munching on bun noodles topped with charred bits of pork, soft and tender summer rolls with shrimp, chicken pho, and other dishes that looked great and smelled better. By the time we packed up to go the place was full; all the diners were Vietnamese except for one white guy who most likely saw action in the Vietnam war, eating dinner with a too-young wife and her hectoring mother. A noisy party of eight was celebrating something with clinks of BYO-liquor in small glasses. A cute, smiling younger couple was slurping noodles and laughing at each other kindly. Nobody had picked up the guitar yet. I’m still wondering what kind of music…hmmmm.
|Regina slurps pho like a champ!|
I’d like to reiterate that this food is serious Vietnamese home-cooking. If your only experience with Vietnamese cuisine is pho, you might be surprised or a little put-off. Real Vietnamese can be funky, bitter, sour, and for the American palate, a little weird. It’s also fresh, exciting, sweet, spicy, and endlessly interesting. If you’re feeling adventurous and in the Westminster area, hit up Long Phung and try some of the real deal.
|Regina and Bennet looking cute at Long Phung.|
8926 Westminster Boulevard, Westminster, CA (714) 897-2445