If I told you there was a restaurant in Orange County where you could get a T-bone steak with fries for $11, you’d probably think I’m talking about Norms or Denny’s. But you’d be wrong. First of all, Norms nowadays charges about $15 for a T-bone. This restaurant’s $11 steak is almost the most expensive thing on the entire menu, with everything else hovering around $9, especially during lunch.
The place I’m speaking of is Coq Au Vin in Little Saigon. More accurately, it’s in Fountain Valley, just across from Mile Square Park, which means it’s far enough away from the chaos of Bolsa, but still close enough that it must compete on prices. This French Vietnamese bistro isn’t the first or only one of its kind around these parts, and it joins Favori and Le Croissant Dore as reminders that Vietnam’s history under the French left an indelible mark on the cuisine.
Just as at Le Croissant Dore, you can have bò kho, beef stew served with crusty French bread to dip into the gravy. And if you call ahead, you can also order a 14-inch fruit tart for $25 that easily feeds a dozen. The custard on the tart isn’t quite as silky as Le Croissant Dore’s, but it’s $5 cheaper, and the arrangement on the fruit is immaculate.
Still, if you’re taking a date or celebrating something significant, you’re better off here than the dank environs of Favori or that cramped alcove Le Croissant Dore calls a dining room. Coq Au Vin is just a few months old, but word has quietly spread around town that it has the nicest, most thoughtfully themed space in the neighborhood. There’s a grand piano in the corner, and you sit in wicker chairs surrounded by murals designed to make you feel as if you’re at an outdoor café on the Champs-Élysées. On Father’s Day, the restaurant was packed with people who wanted to take their dads to a nice place but didn’t want to get gouged on the price of his steak dinner.
That T-bone, by the way, is a bona-fide steak frites. The fries may be standard issue shoestring and the steak about as thick as an In-N-Out patty, but the meat is seared to the perfect level of caramelization. Most important, it’s gilded with a garlic-festooned butter-and-black-pepper sauce that renders the supplied bottle of A1 unnecessary. But it’s not the only steak on the menu: There’s also a filet mignon called bò né that’s served on a hot plate with a sunny-side-up egg, a square of pâté, vegetables and roasted potatoes. As the red-wine reduction drips off the steak, it sizzles on the cast iron. Since it’s one of those showpiece dishes that continues to cook as you eat, consider ordering the steak rarer than your usual.
If you can’t be persuaded to order the steaks, Coq Au Vin does indeed serve coq au vin. Here, they’re drumsticks swimming in a brothy stew made with white wine and served with more French bread and butter. You can also veer into the Vietnamese dishes, including the hu tieu, a massive washbowl of rice noodle soup in a clear pork broth with pieces of shredded chicken, Chinese barbecue pork and steamed shrimp.
Coq Au Vin’s cha giò, traditional Vietnamese egg rolls fried until their rice paper wrappers blister to a crackly texture, are wonderful and come with lettuces and mint for wrapping, as well as the usual sweetened fish sauce for dunking. The cha giò can be found on a separate menu placard written only in Vietnamese. Also on this menu is the mien xào cua be, glass noodles stir-fried with shrimp and lots of onions. The dish is as delectable here as it is at Brodard.
But perhaps the greatest and most cost-effective dish you can have at Coq Au Vin is the cha cá thang long. It’s an elaborate spread designed for two that begins with a cool hill of bún noodles, crackers, peanuts, an Amazonian jungle of herbs and more lettuce. Then the main event arrives: turmeric-tinted pieces of pan-seared swai fish entangled in sliced onions and bushels of dill. Picking out a little of each, you construct your bowl, then pour on the stinky purple sauce made of fermented shrimp paste.
It’s thrilling, filling and fun. And if you feel it puts you closer to the Mekong than the Seine, that’s okay because, well, most of the staff here don’t speak much French anyway, let alone English.
Coq Au Vin, 16033 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 884-4543. Open daily, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Lunch for two, $15-$30, food only. Beer and wine.
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.