For years, there was a Shakey’s on Westminster Avenue and Taft Street, where it dead-ends into a river bed in Garden Grove. It was one of the older Shakey’s in Orange County, as was obvious from the Kennedy-era font spelling out “Shakey’s Pizza Parlor & Ye Public House” on the hexagon-shaped signpost. About three years ago, the Shakey’s closed and a Japanese steakhouse moved in. The steakhouse didn’t last long. After it shuttered earlier this year, an Asian fusion restaurant called Bosava took over the space. Even if you didn’t know about the Shakey’s, you could still tell the place used to be something old-school. The new logo didn’t quite fill out the white space left on that signpost, and the exterior of the building—which looks even more ramshackle these days than ever—starkly contrasted with what’s now inside.
Walking in, it felt as though I discovered the architectural embodiment of a geode—an outer layer of ugly hiding an interior that glimmers. On one wall, a polished metal relief was backlit with LEDs. Above me, clouds were painted against a blue sky on a Caesar’s Palace-style mural. The space resembled a ballroom for a lavish wedding banquet that was just about to start, with a raised stage for an MC and a state-of-the-art sound system that could sustain a raucous night of dancing. Bosava has fashioned itself as a high-end venue aimed at the Vietnamese consumer who wants to be surrounded by the kind of glamour they’ve seen in Paris By Night.
But if you’re not a Vietnamese speaker, you’ll find the eight-page menu as impenetrable as I did. It has English translations, but they’re lazy ones that don’t begin to describe what you’re actually ordering. An appetizer called tré Hue chua cay is translated as “spicy sour tre Hue.”
My waiter was no help in explaining this dish or the rest of the menu. When I asked him what the best and most popular item was, he resorted to the always-frustrating answer of “Everything is good.” After he admitted he didn’t know how many scallops came in the baked scallops appetizer, I couldn’t decide whether he was just as overwhelmed by the menu or simply hadn’t tried any of it.
Sensing my growing frustration, he pointed to the Hai Phong seafood egg rolls, which he said a lot of customers liked. A few minutes later, he brought out what resembled two tiny apple turnovers cut in half.
“Are these the egg rolls?” I asked.
“Something like that,” he answered mysteriously.
But it was indeed “something like that.” These were two pillow-shaped cha gios served on an oversized plate with the usual accouterment of lettuce, herbs, pickled carrots and daikon, with a dipping bowl of spicy fish sauce on the side. A Google search revealed that these blistered rice paper Hot Pockets are filled with minced crab and vermicelli noodles. It was a style of egg roll popular in Hai Phong, a port city in northeastern Vietnam known for its seafood. I loved it, and my server, in commenting it was well-liked, was at least not misrepresenting the dish.
He could’ve, however, done better describing the main course I ordered. When I asked, he’d told me that the bo luc lac was just like another steak dish that was translated into English as “slide beef tenderloin on top of sunrise potatoes.” The only difference, he said, was that the latter had rice in it.
I found no rice in the “slide beef.” And as it turns out, whoever typed slide on the menu actually meant sliced because that’s what it was: thinly sliced wok-tossed tenderloin with onions and scallions, drizzled in Worcestershire sauce, and piled over fast-food fries.
Despite looking like something that came from a food truck, it was surprisingly good. The beef, which resembled the meat in a Philly cheesesteak, was so tender it didn’t require chewing. And because the onions were perfectly sautéed and the sauce soaked its way into the fries, the dish became a delicious homage to Peruvian lomo saltado, even if it was inadvertent.
That night, I saw at least three other Vietnamese families tucking into that dish. I noticed they also ordered the same seafood salad I was having, a mountain of young mango, green papaya, thick rings of cuttlefish and shrimp the size of fists. It was then that I realized whether you can speak Vietnamese or not, we were all there to enjoy what this place had in spades—beef and potatoes, seafood in salad, and a room that makes us feel as if we’re celebrating something momentous.
Bosava, 10742 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (657) 999-5672; bosavarestaurant.com. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Appetizers, $6-$13; entrées, $15-$30. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.