At her parents' house in Little Saigon, Ann Le scatters tender green mint, cilantro, and basil over two bowls of rice vermicelli. She's making the herb-noodle salad called bún, a dish so beloved that it often claims a whole section on local Vietnamese restaurant menus.
Bún seems infinitely adaptable, a bed for whatever you want to put on it: Pork chops with shallots and onion? Gingery fried chicken? Braised eggplant? Today Le, a dimple-cheeked 29-year-old, has made three toppings: fat grilled shrimp with black pepper, green onions, and garlic; crisp-edged grilled lemon-grass beef; and cubes of warm tofu glazed with oyster sauce. All are from her first book, The Little Saigon Cookbook: Vietnamese Cuisine and Culture in Southern California's Little Saigon (The Globe Pequot Press, 2006; $16).
With chopsticks, she arranges some shrimp on her bowl. I go for the beef, with a few cubes of tofu. A drizzle of fish sauce, a sprinkling of crunchy scallions, peanuts, and fried garlic, and our lunch is ready.
Little Saigon, a 3-square-mile chunk of Westminster, California, is home to the largest group of Vietnamese outside Vietnam, many of them refugees from the 1975 fall of Saigon. Le grew up here, the daughter of hardworking emigrés (even her grandmother got a job, at the local Taco Bell). Hired out of college by an investment bank, Le decided, after several years of selling securities, that she wanted to create a record of her bustling, protective community ― especially given its steady erosion as younger people moved out to other, more integrated parts of Southern California.
"My generation doesn't need to come here," she explains. "For instance, I feel comfortable shopping and eating in Alhambra." She'd also looked for a good, easy Vietnamese cookbook for herself and couldn't find one. So her neighborhood preservation project became part guidebook and part cookbook, full of recipes from the shopkeepers and restaurateurs she'd grown up with ― and from her grandmother, the best cook she knew.
"The recipes were handed down by word," says Le, so she did a lot of watching and note taking. As recorded in The Little Saigon Cookbook, they are simple and clear, easy for even a newcomer to this food to understand.
The noodle salad is layered with color, flavor, and texture, a quintessentially Vietnamese combination of pungent and fresh. For Le, it's pure comfort, the taste of her neighborhood. "I'm certainly not the authority on Vietnamese food," Le says, as she picks up a shrimp with her chopsticks. "But I like to think I've documented something."
SMART SALAD STRATEGIES
Follow these tips to make serving the salad with all the toppings and condiments even easier.
Prep foods together.
Certain ingredients show up in more than one recipe; prepping the total amount will save time.
• Black pepper, freshly ground: 2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp.
• Cilantro sprigs: 1¼ cups plus 2 tbsp.
• Garlic: ½ cup minced (14 to 16 large cloves)
• Lemon grass: 5 tbsp. minced (from inner core of 2 or 3 stalks)
• Lime juice, freshly squeezed: ¼ cup
• Mint: 1/3 cups loosely packed leaves
Do some work ahead.
The day before, make the fried garlic and the dipping sauce. Prepare some or all of the ingredients: Rinse, peel, and chop, then refrigerate the perishables (store the garlic at room temperature). You can even make the Sautéed Tofu ahead (reheat gently). When you're ready to make the toppings, start with the beef, since it takes awhile to marinate.