Chinatown, Los Angeles. A one square mile area that some call their weekly lunch spot or see as purely a wasteland of elderly people, junk shops and wandering tourists. For those that have ventured and tasted SGV, it is futile to search for better food in Chinatown. Understandably it’s a spot for people that don't want to make the drive out to the San Gabriel Valley, where the real food is. You won’t find lip-stinging Hunan food. You’ll never kiss a juicy pork dumpling. Nor will you slurp a solid bowl of beef noodle soup. It doesn’t exist in Chinatown because it’s not what the people want. You’ll most likely find all of your food drenched with sweet n’ sour sauce and receiving your bill with a fortune cookie on top. Sadly, a lot of people consider the food to be authentic “Chinese” food. If that was Chinese food, I’d rather go vegetarian. And what a lot of people don't know about Los Angeles’s Chinatown is that it's not really comprised of Chinese. In actuality, most of the Chinese food that you've eaten in Chinatown is Cantonese Chinese food, similar to Hong Kong-style Chinese food... but made for non-Chinese. Got it?
Of course the majority of the establishments are Chinese restaurants and various businesses, but it would be unfair if we did not recognize the efforts of the ethnic Chinese minorities that really do shape the character of Chinatown. But in the last decade, there has been an influx of Mainland Chinese, Chiu Chow Chinese, Cambodian Chinese and Vietnamese Chinese. A lot of them operating small noodle shops, jewelry stores and general eateries. You just read the word “Chinese” how many times in that last sentence, but there is a difference. And believe it or not, not all Asians look or eat the same. One thing in common with those ethnic minority groups are noodles. You probably won't find me in a joint like Empress Pavilion or one of those television-network Chinese restaurants like CBS/ABC. What the hell is that about anyway? I avoid those entirely. But you will find me in the noodle shops.
It's hard to find authenticity in Chinatown, I know because it seems like everything is offering the same food. But if you look really hard, you'll find some hidden gems. When it comes to noodles, the ethnic Chinese minorities reign the 1 square mile kingdom. Hong Kong wontons don’t exist here like you would think, not even in SGV. Places like New Kamara and Mien Nghia offer decent bowls of soup noodles for under $7, guaranteed to make your belly shiny. There are a few other Cambodian Chinese places that are so so, and you would surely find better stuff in Long Beach for sure.
For me, I think the Vietnamese options are on the light. Outside of Pho 87 on Broadway, I haven't found anything worth stopping for. All of the other pho restaurants I've been to are below the batting average. There is also Leena's truck, Nam Thai, on Spring/Alpine which offers a few Vietnamese staples such as banh mi, banh cuon and bun thit nuong, with the banh cuon being purchased from a factory daily. But her truck has been in operation since the lates 80s and runs independently from the Los Angeles food truck scene.
Amidst the salad bowl of ethnic cuisines, tourist traps and overpriced food, I’ve recently parted through the brush and bullshit and fell upon Buu Dien, an earnest, mom & pop, sandwich shop in a lonely stuccoed strip mall. Jonathan Gold recently heralded this place as one of the best banh mi shops in Los Angeles. And they are good. But he may or may not have overlooked something that I find to be quite delicious and what Buu Dien should be recognized for. I’ve been here a few times over the year to pick up sandwiches and one day I noticed a sheet of paper by the entrance: pho, chicken curry and bun rieu. For $4 each. Can’t be good, too cheap, right? You’ve had the first two, but may I suggest you meet bun rieu? A dish that consists of a crab and tomato broth with vermicelli noodles and various toppings. This originates from North Vietnam and can be topped with snails, tofu or even dill fishcakes, the way I had it when I was in Vietnam.
So on a hazy morning, I walked in to Buu Dien. The lights were shut off and the room was illuminated solely by the blue overcast light from outside. There was an old TV blaring out headlines in Vietnamese and I could hear the quiet gurgling from the coffee maker nearby. A heated display case offered you its delicacies – cured pork balls, fried pork patties and banana-leaf wrapped goodies. Some signage on the wall colored in Vietnamese/French-like typography advertised the available drinks. A clock shaped into the country of Vietnam ticked away. There was another display case that stored various Vietnamese drinks, patés and Vietnamese meatloaf (cha lua). On top, there were packages of instant noodle bowls – I wondered who actually bought these. There were stools scattered around, like they had walked away from tables on their own. The tiles on the floor were slightly cracked and freshly mopped. All that was really missing were some red and blue plastic stools and napkins tossed all over the ground. This feels like Vietnam, and I already liked what was going on in here. This was your typical Vietnamese food establishment selling various culinary knick-knacks.
And then an older man with glasses popped up from behind the counter and said hello. “Hi, how can I help you?” How about cooking me something delicious, I thought to myself. I ordered bun rieu and he smiled with surprise. There was another gentleman slurping down a bowl of bun rieu like he was in his happy little world. I took a seat and waited for my bun rieu.
I sometimes think the Vietnamese can start their own fast-food like corporation by packing one of these patties in between some lettuce and bread, and sell it in some happy meal like form because this stuff is great. It's used in banh mi, in bun rieu and possibly as informal wedding dowry.
These are Vietnamese style meatballs that are cured and then either grilled or deep fried. Used mainly in sandwiches or eaten like a meatsicle.
My attention was averted when I heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Mr. Pham's slippers slid across that tiling, holding a tray full with everything I needed to get my meal on. There was the bowl of noodles gently breathing heat, a plate of lettuce, herbs and lemon and hot sauce. He placed everything on my tiny table and said "enjoy".
But before he could leave, I asked him about the missing component... shrimp paste (mam ruoc). He again looked at me like I was new to this delicious dish. I told him I can't eat it without my shrimp sauce. Most people have a love/hate relationship with this pungent, if that's even the right word, sauce made of ground fermented shrimp. Although we had the Lao version of this growing up, shrimp paste never failed in triggering a response in the form of a plugged nose, "eeeewwww" and a quick sprint for the hills. But I love it and have grown to love it the more I use it. Like it's good for my health. I cracked open the jar and it was almost done with. There was nothing but a plastic spoon cut off at the end to fit within the jar. I say you skip this part if you aren't ready to dip your own chopsticks or use the spoon provided to dig up that purple paste of pungency. But if you do, the addition of this sauce with some hot chili, lemon and herbs form yet another yin-yang relationship within Vietnamese food.
There are many versions of bun rieu out there, the crab paste and snail ones being the most popular that I've seen. Here at Buu Dien, Mr. Pham's wife, Hen, does her with a huge piece of crab paste. Her mudball-like sculpture of crab, shrimp and pork is nothing short of delicious. As the crab paste sits in the soup, it soaks up the broth like a sponge – with every bite, more tasty and juicy than the other. I love this.
Don't eat this naked. You must eat it with bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs. Squeeze of lemon.