When my mother lived in Lake Forrest, I discovered Little Saigon in Westminster, CA. It is just 30 minutes south of LAX on the 405 Freeway. It's also where I found flavors that would pair well with some of my favorite recipes.
Although my mom weighed 95 pounds and was barely 4'10", she could eat more than our teenaged sons. Above all other cuisines, she loved Asian food. The large Vietnamese community in Little Saigon is a short drive from where she lived, so we got into a routine of taking her to a restaurant whenever we visited.
Along with my wife's cousin who lives in Irvine, we would often meet up at Dong Khanh, a small restaurant with a big menu.
With a dozen people sitting around the table, we'd order our favorite dishes: barbecue pork chops with broken rice; lobster with salt and pepper sauce; spring rolls with shrimp, rice noodles and bean sprouts; vermicelli with barbecue shrimp and shredded lettuce; and sizzling catfish with caramelized onions and fresh mint.
One of the outstanding dishes we enjoyed was pho ga, the chicken version of pho, a soup which traditionally features thinly sliced, almost raw pieces of beef.
Pho (pronounced "fa") is quintessential comfort food.
Last year I discovered Pho Vinh Ky, a non-descript restaurant next to a Stater Bros. grocery store. Their pho ga is a masterpiece.
Floating on top are finely diced pieces of scallion and cilantro leaves. Just below the surface of the broth lies a tangle of rice noodles and roughly chopped chicken meat. Customers can request either boneless white breast meat or dark meat. Personally, I prefer the more succulent dark meat.
Everywhere pho is served, the soup is accompanied by a plate of fresh ingredients to be added to the broth: bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime wedges and jalepeno peppers. If you want more heat, grab the large bottle of Sriracha sauce with the picture of a proud rooster.
A squeeze bottle of hoisin sauce is also on the table to add flavor. However, what sets Pho Vinh Ky apart from other Vietnamese restaurants is the small white dish of dipping sauce called nuoc cham gung. The sauce is served with their version of pho ga.
You can pour nuoc cham gung into the soup and stir the salty-sweet-hot sauce into the broth, or dip pieces of chicken and strands of noodle into the sauce before you eat them.
The sweet, salty heat of the sauce makes all the difference in the world. What was a good broth becomes great.
Also, if you are hungry, don't be afraid to order big at Pho Vinh Ky. They often run a half-off special, so a large bowl will cost you under $4.
Whenever I drop my wife at LAX, I head 30 minutes south to Pho Vinh Ky and meet my cousin-in-law for a bowl of pho ga. We happily talk about work and family and devour our soup and noodles, asking for extra portions of dipping sauce.
I know that part of my love of pho ga is because I crave nuoc cham gung. Recently I realized the sauce would work as a marinade for chicken wings, shrimp and even tofu.
Over the past several weeks, I tried the idea out at dinner parties with friends. I focused on chicken wings, thinking that with Buffalo wings as part of everyone's food vocabulary, the sweet, salty heat of the Vietnamese style wings would be a perfect fit.
The marinade is pretty simple to make and, so far, my friends have enjoyed the wings. Check out the recipe and let me know what you think.
- For the Spicy Ginger-Garlic Chicken Wings recipe, click here.