Little Saigon Night Market @ Asian Garden Mall

Last year, I went out to a crawfish place with some friends in Westminster. We ate, but found ourselves still propelled by the good vibes, so we decided to go to the Asian Garden Mall (the one at 9200 Bolsa). We were all expecting just a normal mall type experience―walking around, window shopping, snacks, etc.―but we were very pleasantly surprised to happen upon some sort of festival! We got lucky with parking, and the fun began. The smells and sounds of the multiple grilled meat vendors immediately made me feel quite at home among the crowds, and everything I tried was great, not to mention cheap. In the midst of the eating and joviality, I neither knew nor cared why this festival was happening, but it turned out that it was the Little Saigon Night Market!

My most recent visit on Sunday was my third time there, but the first since last year, since it only began June 15th. This visit was also the first time I made a plan to try as many things as possible.

I was with three friends, and after a quick look around, we picked the Mai’s Kitchen booth for our first stop.

Grilled pork and Bánh Can Nha Trang

Grilled pork and Bánh Can Nha Trang.

The pork had a great lemongrass flavor, along with what I thought to be a slight note of citrus, as one often finds in meat marinades. The pork itself was of course rich and excellently grilled, with a juicy center and a bit of char. The sign for the Bánh Can Nha Trang specifically said these were “authentic Nha Trang rice pancakes.” I can’t say I know from Nha Trang rice pancakes, but I loved these. The batter is poured in the specialized cooker, consisting of a bucket-type chamber for the charcoal and the top surface with shallow bowls. The batter is poured in the bowls and covered with a lid, but the pancake is never flipped. The result is a cooked bottom and a spongy top, upon which a little green onion topping is placed. The provided dipping sauce is viscous with ground chicken at the bottom of the cup (easy to miss, as I almost did, if you don’t know it’s there). They were overall an eggy experience. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Next stop was waffles.

Why can't all waffles be like this?

Why can’t all waffles be like this?

Just your regular green coconut waffles, but they came with a nice orange peel dipping sauce, which was a first for me. The tartness was an excellent counterbalance to the sweetness of the waffle, which can be a bit boring to a person who lacks a sweet tooth, such as me.

When we first arrived I had seen someone carrying a dish that was a mound of something on a flat cracker-type thing. As we were eating our waffles, I saw that very dish on display at the Happy Bee booth. It’s called Hen Xúc Bánh Tráng, or baby clams on a crunchy rice cake.

Inset:  the sign for this dish, with the cool "X" in Xúc. I thought it was an "L" until my Viet friend Tara informed me otherwise.

Inset: the sign for this dish, with the cool “X” in Xúc. I thought it was a stylized cursive “L” until my Viet friend informed me otherwise.

The clams are cooked with onion, bell pepper, cayenne, and paprika, according to the what the guy in the tent told us through our Viet friend. We shared this one, and we all wanted the spicy option, but it was less spicy than I expected. It was still a very enjoyable, complex, and fruity spice, though. We ate it with pieces of the rice cake we broke off, which proved slightly difficult while standing up without a table. I think I have a soft spot for food one eats with pieces of other food.

While we were deciding on what to eat together next, I made a detour to the tent with Chuôí Chiên (fried bananas).

Can't go wrong with fried bananas!

Can’t go wrong with fried bananas!

While I was getting my bananas, my friends got in line for grilled chicken. This chicken was a saucier and sweeter experience than the pork, and it was fatty dark meat, my favorite part of a chicken.

$2 seems to be the market price for meat skewers.

$2 seems to be the market price for meat skewers.

For “dessert,” I was elated to find that there was a vendor selling balut!

That's one thing off my bucket list!

That’s one thing off my bucket list!

I had wanted to try balut for a long time before this, so I jumped at the chance. The egg is simply boiled in seasoned water and served with lime and salt and pepper. After breaching the shell, one drinks/sucks out the salty liquid before removing the rest of the shell. The underdeveloped duck itself was essentially a bit of very soft meat, and the yolk was just like any other yolk. There’s an inedible rounded thing that takes up about half the volume of the egg, but this dish isn’t like crawfish―you still get a nice couple of bites for your effort.

The market is every weekend until September 1―Fridays and Saturdays 7 PM-midnight and Sundays until 11―so we’ll definitely be going back. I’ll get enough material for at least one more post with all the things we didn’t have a chance to try!

Here’s the page for the market on AGM’s site, with a vendor list and the hours.

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Star BBQ (Byul Daepo – Star BBQ)

I first went to Star BBQ as a Japanese final exam celebration (as in, after we took the test) with a group such as one often sees around Irvine and Garden Grove—white people (including me), a couple Taiwanese people, Japanese, Korean, African-American, Indian—and we weren’t even the most diverse group eating there. We had decided to go here on the recommendation of one of the Korean guys, who also seemed to know someone who worked there.

Jump forward a year or a year and a half and now I’m with another group of friends looking for a good place to have a KBBQ reunion dinner. I suggested this place and related the story from above, and they all agreed.

We were there to celebrate, so we sprung for the $19.99/person menu. This was the first wave:

Beef tongue, brisket, pork belly, and bulgogi.

Brisket, beef tongue, pork belly, and bulgogi.

The menu is far too large for 4 people to try everything in one visit, but we certainly ate our share that night—beef belly, abomasum (4th stomach of a cow), spicy chicken, black pork belly, more bulgogi, a couple of other meats, and two very nice beef tenderloins to finish.

Beef belly, black pork belly, bulgogi, and beef tenderloins.

Beef belly, black pork belly, bulgogi, and beef tenderloin. The “tenderloin” looks more like the whole loin, but it was really good.

Several bottles of Kooksoondang Draft Makkoli, a rice wine, were also consumed. Makkoli was originally made by and for farmers, but it’s been in fashion with Korean 20-somethings/cocktalians/students for some time now. This brand is unique because it comes out of the bottle carbonated—it’s made to replicate Makkoli as it’s served on tap in Korea—though it has a shelf life of just 2-3 months.

Before we had even finished eating, we all agreed that this was the best KBBQ we’ve ever had. We ended up leaving a note for our exceptional waitress, but of course we didn’t leave without partaking of the free frozen yogurt, available in two flavors. I think they change, but that night the two options were “pineapple” and “tart.”

We all opted for the "mixed" option.

We all got the “mixed” option.

Dublin 4: Gastroburger

On the menu, it’s called the Prime Gastroburger or Gastro Prime Burger or something like that. I haven’t actually read the menu since my first of many visits about 6 months ago, but the simple phrase “gastroburger and a pint of Smithwick’s” is all one needs to say.

This burger is, in short, one of my all time favorite burgers. The pairing of this burger and Smithwick’s is also one of my all time burger-and-a-beer pairs. Always perfectly cooked, even when the chef has left the kitchen, with an excellent balance among all the elements. The richness of the meat and cheese is cut by the arugula and pickle, and bacon is always a nice touch. The bun is sturdy, and, in terms of the flavor profile, yields appropriately to what it contains. The skinny fries with truffle oil and parmesan are also always fried and seasoned well. It is available as a lamb burger, though I prefer my lamb in chop form.

I like the presentation too.

I like the presentation, too.

Early Bird: Real-Deal-Holyfield Steak and Eggs

This here was actually the first time I ordered any sort of steak and eggs. I’ve been to plenty of places where one very well could order such a dish, but this time was the same old story of going to a new place, trying a new thing, etc. I figured Early Bird was a good place to branch out.

And what a first time it was!

I’ll just start off by saying that everything was perfectly cooked. Everything. The ribeye was a beautiful medium rare, the potatoes had a nice pan-fried crisp on them, and the sunny side up eggs were great. The steak coming out at an actual medium rare is quite a feat given that it was so thin. The tomato, asparagus, mushroom, and caramelized onion sauté sort of thing was a great complement and the smoked tomato béarnaise tied the whole plate together, as a sauce should.

Also of note are Early Bird’s single-origin coffees, craft-roasted for Early Bird right in Placentia. During my visit, they were brewing a wonderful El Salvadoran coffee that was just my kind of coffee―pleasantly bitter, with just a hint of chocolate, and nicely aromatic. I ended up having 4 cups, about 4 times my usual coffee consumption in a sitting.

A very well presented dish, on top of everything else.