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June 16, 2010

Late Night Behind the Orange Curtain

Ice Beer and Vietnamese Karaoke Elvis @ Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon Dominic Armato

Spending a weekend in Orange County is not what one would commonly refer to as a cultural experience. Particularly when the goal of such a visit is to take a three-year-old on his inaugural trip to Disney. Lest I lend the wrong impression, I'm a fan of Disney. Always have been. If you accept that you're cattle, hand in your wallet and check your cynicism at the front gate, you can have a pretty great time. Even if your kid mostly seems interested in spending time in your hotel room. But let's not delude ourselves, here. While debatably the happiest place on earth, Disneyland is not a food-friendly environment. So when the house of the mouse has shut down for the evening and the rest of the family is fast asleep, it's time to find some Vietnamese.

Duck Soup with NoodlesDominic Armato

Orange County, for those unawares, is one of the nation's hotbeds for Vietnamese restaurants. I'm unfamiliar with the specific demographics of the area, but let's just say there are an awful lot of people of Vietnamese descent living there, and they like to eat an awful lot of Vietnamese food. Thankfully, many of them like to eat it very late at night, which is when I had the opportunity to sneak away. Both times, the late hour did much to dictate my options, and I ended up at one of the few joints still open at 2:30 in the morning, the southern location of Luc Dinh Ky (only two blocks away from the northern location), where the Friday night party crowd was well into the post-booze munchy phase of the evening. It's small, sparse, bright and lively bordering on raucous at that hour on a weekend, and I parked and gave the menu a quick glance for whatever sounded right that evening.

CatfishDominic Armato

What grabbed me was a duck soup with noodles, bún vịt xáo măng, I believe, to those whose grasp of menu Vietnamese is less tenuous than mine (I really need to work on that). And though I briefly questioned whether I should have gone with something I was less likely to find back home, when it arrived and I took a few sips, all I could think was that I wish home had 2:30 AM options like this. It was a beautiful, clean bowl of broth, crystal clear and full of duck flavor... not to mention a sizeable portion of the beast itself, noodles and some greens. Frankly, I was pleased that the stock didn't taste of chicken, and the fact that my bar has been reset so low is nothing short of a tragedy. Is there anything more comforting than this? A simple stock with a little meat and noodles? The thought of this would get me through day two of amusement park food.

The next night, I snuck out again, this time with a food nerd friend from the Chicago days, Tony, who knows a thing or two about the local scene. He'd heard good things about another late-night joint not far from where I was staying, so we converged on Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon for what turned out to be as much a cultural experience as a meal.

Birthday CakeDominic Armato

I define "cultural" a little broadly, here, but the point is that this was the full package, not just the food. Upon entering, we were asked whether we'd like to be seated with or without music. "Music," we responded. Hey, why not? This landed us in a ballroom with a huge dance floor, colored lights of every kind, crumpled aluminum foil covering the ceiling, a crowd of thirty drunken birthday revelers, and Vietnamese Elvis, in full regalia, on stage performing karaoke. Tony boldly predicted that we'd be eating birthday cake before the night was out. We started out by putting down a little beer, poured into a frosty sub-zero mug that made it all too easy to drink. I let Tony take the lead and he had a hankering for catfish, so that's what we had, and it was a fine specimen, right down to the maraschino cherries. The fish really was nice, moist and tender with a very crisp -- almost crunchy -- lacquered shell that added both texture and depth of flavor to the rolls. It's Vietnamese. You know the drill. Wet a rice wrapper in a bowl of scalding hot water, add some noodles, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables along with your fish before rolling up. And we even received a trio of sauces for dipping... a standard nuoc cham, a spicier variant, and a concoction derived from fermented fish that dominated my attention. It didn't plumb the funky depths of the fermentation barrel, so to speak (not that I wouldn't have welcomed that), but rather it was a very sweet, tart and light version that I could've eaten with a spoon.

Two late nights in this area is really just a tease, but I'll take what I can get. Tony and I shut the place down, catching up and talking about all things food and non as Vietnamese Elvis disappeared and the drunken revelers stumbled out one by one. The fellow running the joint even gave us a couple pieces of leftover birthday cake with our check. Score one for Tony.

Luc Dinh Ky Restaurant Tap 2
9600 Bolsa Avenue
Westminster, CA 92683
Sun - Wed10:00 AM - 2:00 AM
Fri - Sat10:00 AM - 3:00 AM
Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon
10830 Warner Avenue
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Mon - Thu12:00 PM - 1:00 AM
Fri - Sun10:30 AM - 1:00 AM


Maybe there's a culinary difference between Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Orlando, but I've actually found some restaurants in Disney World to be pretty enjoyable.

Maybe it's because my expectations were so low, I was pleasantly surprised by the food at Wolfgang Puck's, as well as the food at Tony's Ristorante in the Magic Kingdom. Then again, I don't think those restaurants would have seemed nearly as good if I found them in New York City. I suppose it is about leaving expectations behind.

That said, I haven't been to Disney in quite a few years, so the two restaurants I'm thinking of could have seen a huge decline in quality.

As a native of the Southland (Northern San Diego County), I certainly enjoy OrCo's Vietnamese offerings, but, come on, no Mexican? When I'm right off the plane, I'm straight to authentic Mexican (also usually open late). (Note: this might have something to do with our respective current locations (I'm in DC).) Nice reviews though.

"(Note: this might have something to do with our respective current locations (I'm in DC)."

On the nosey :-)

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