Banh Xeo, Com Tam, and Bun Bo Hue are just a few dishes you’ve probably never heard of but should probably add to your must-try itinerary as soon as that clock ticks. Okay, maybe there’s a spot or two with hella good pho on the list too, but that’s besides the point! Vietnamese cuisine is rich with diversity, packed with heart-warming depth, and home to the best damn baguettes you’ve ever had. Here in Los Angeles where a portion of the Vietnamese community practices ahimsa (non-violence)
Au Lac (Vegan)
Let’s start things off strong with a Vietnamese concept that raises its food to the levels of fine dining. For better or worse, many Asian cuisines are looked at as being “cheap” or “budget” foods, and while we love $4 banh mi as much as the next person, this assumption has turned into a cultural standard that convinces people Asian foods can’t be prestigious culinary arts. Au Lac challenges those standards with wondrously plated dishes, a classy interior, and creative flavors that take Vietnamese spices, techniques, and soul to new heights. While we’d love to highlight one dish, there’s simply too many showstopping plates to focus on, but what you can expect is a plethora of elegant raw plates, hearty fusion entrees, as well as timeless Vietnamese dishes.
Vinh Loi Tofu (Vegan)
Reseda & Cerritos
Kevin Tran, owner of Vinh Loi Tofu, uses his Vietnamese heritage as a resource to create new, innovative dishes. While the menu contains a few classics such as congee (rice porridge), banh mi, and noodle soups, it also contains combinations unheard of for vegan cuisine, like duck fried rice, spam spring rolls, and duck noodle salad, all of which have for proteins at their base. What’s more, Tran also has a reputation for making customers off-menu items that are even better than what’s found on his menu. Simply go in, tell him what you’re in the mood for, and prepare for a mouth watering surprise.
Thien Tam Vegetarian Restaurant (Vegetarian)
Never underestimate a strip mall restaurant—that’s a lesson you’ll learn after visiting this discrete shop with an extensive menu, incredible prices, and traditional recipes that’ll spark your tastebuds, soothe your stomach, and ignite your spirit. All of their vegan dishes are marked with a “V,” making ordering a breeze. For a crepe far different than the silky sheets of France, order banh xeo, a crackly Vietnamese crepe colored with turmeric, constructed with rice flour, and stuffed with various fillings. Proper eating etiquette includes tearing off a piece of crepe, grabbing a piece of leaf lettuce, wrapping it around the crepe, dunking the entire thing into Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese dipping fish sauce, which is completely vegan at vegetarian restaurants), and devouring! Just make sure you’re prepared for a new addiction, because banh xeo satisfy the senses in a way nothing else can.
Glendale Pho (Omnivore)
Of course, the list wouldn’t be complete without a few pho spots, as pho’s essentially Vietnam’s claim to flame, much how pad thai is to Thailand. Traditionally, pho is made by simmering beef bones over the course of 24-72 hours, which makes for a deep, umami-rich broth. While the characteristics of gelatin and collagen (found in animal bones) are hard to replicate, some people have found out how to make irresistible pho broth without any animal products. One such place is Glendale Pho, a site that’s mastered the tender balance of aromatics, toppings, and condiments necessary for perfect pho. And no, we didn’t stutter—condiments and add-ins are just as essential to pho as are the noodles and broth. A squeeze of lime, hand-shredded mint, and crisp bean sprouts are musts, while mild sriracha, sweet hoisin sauce, and/or house-made chili sauce elevate the flavors to eleven. If you’ve yet to find good vegan pho, we recommend you slide Glendale Pho to the top of your list.
Saigon’s Bakery and Sandwiches (Omnivore)
Banh mi is right up there next to pho in terms of popularity, which makes sense given America’s fascination with handheld foods. For those not in the know, banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich, traditionally comprised of a French baguette, some sort of grilled meat, mayonnaise, do chua (pickled daikon and carrots), fresh cilantro, jalapeno slices, and—if you’re lucky—pate. In Vietnam, these sandwiches are sold as street food for less than fifty cents. In the states, if you’re banh mi’s more than $5, you might want to question your decision, as traditional spots tend to stay true to the food’s budget-friendly roots. Saigon’s Bakery and Sandwiches in San Gabriel is an OG Vietnamese sandwich shop with fresh bread baked daily, a narrow menu of classic offerings, and 10-inch sandwiches less than $4. Their vegetarian option is a combination of thin glass noodles, fried tofu, yams, and some sort of seasoning which we’ve yet to nail down. Whatever it is, it’s chewy, hearty, and a unique replacement for the traditional meat that’s used. To make your sandwich vegan, simply order without mayo and apply Veganaise back home.
An Lac Hanh (Vegetarian)
South El Monte
A small dining space, kitchen bathrooms, cash only, and tight tables packed with chopsticks, soup spoons, and all the essential condiments are a sure sign of a legit Vietnamese establishment. Again, not that Asian cuisine can’t be fine dining, but small family-owned restaurants are the backbone of this food culture. An Lac Hanh’s menu is filled with traditional Vietnamese dishes most Americans have never tried or heard of. One such dish, one which is even worthy of challenging the almighty pho, is Bun Hue, a hearty rice noodle soup that’s deeper, spicier, and more umami than pho. At An Lac Hanh it’s served with veggie meats, fried tofu, bean sprouts, lime, and fresh cilantro. The only non-vegan items to look out for on their menu is sweetened condensed milk (used in coffee) and cream cheese (used in wontons).
Veggie Life Restaurant (Vegetarian)
South El Monte
Normally, we like to keep things within the “first person plural” perspective, aka “we” instead of “I,” however, I feel this restaurant is deserving of a first person narrative (rules are meant to be broken, right?). Veggie Life scores last on the list not necessarily because it ranks “better” than any others, but because it’s the closest experience to Vietnam my Vietnamese girlfriend Kim has ever found in Los Angeles. Everything from workers chatting with customers in native tongue, more-than-generous portion sizes, complimentary bowls of sweet green bean and seaweed desserts, and employees casually prepping vegetables in the dining area hits home with Kim, who hasn’t been back to Vietnam in 13 years. This is important because these types of experiences offer people an inside look at another’s country’s culture without ever stepping across their border. By my calculations, that makes a $25 meal at Veggie Life of infinite value when compared to an $800 plane ticket.
“But what about the food?” Good point. Veggie Life offers an array of authentic dishes, making it a spot worthy of several visits. Depending on your mood, try out their Vietnamese Curry with French Bread (Banh Mi Cari), Fried Rice with Roasted Chicken (Com Ga Roti), or Vermicelli Bowl with Egg Rolls, Shredded Pork, and BBQ Pork (Bun Bi, Cha Gio, Thit Nuong). Because the broth of Vietnamese Curry is soupier and less rich than that of other cultures, it’s traditionally served with bread instead of rice, making for bites of flavor-soaked goodness. If you’re a fan of curry, Cari Ga is a must-try. Com Ga Roti is essentially Vietnamese rotisserie chicken over fried rice. The chicken is chewy, meaty, and coated in a thick, savory, and subtly sweet sauce that’s akin to American BBQ sauce. When you’re craving those meat-heavy dishes of your childhood, this really soothes the spirit. Finally, a Vermicelli Bowl satisfies just about every taste bud on your palate, as it’s comprised of layers of texture, freshness, sweetness, and savoriness. Tender rice noodles form the base, house-made egg rolls excite one’s vision, shredded veggie pork adds chewiness, lemongrass grilled pork sparks the appetite, pickled daikon and carrots bring zingy acidity, and crushed peanuts, fresh bean sprouts, and ribbons of fresh lettuce balance out the bowl’s depth. Pour on liberal amounts of sweet and zesty nuoc cham all over and dig in! If it’s good enough to impress a girl who grew up with her grandma’s legendary cooking, it certainly earns a visit from the rest of us.
No doubt, pho is a classic comfort food, however Vietnamese cuisine is rich with dishes that spike the senses. From feel good vermicelli bowls to savory rice dishes and heart-warming noodle soups to flaky baguette sandwiches, there’s a Vietnamese meal for any time of day. Put the burgers and shakes on pause—there’s new culinary terrain to explore!