Drive eastbound on Bolsa Avenue as it turns to First Street, and you’ll notice the gradual transition from Little Saigon to Santa Ana. As the patisseries give way to the panaderías, the Vietnamese signs blur into Spanish and the prospect of great tacos de birria becomes as likely as a steaming bowl of pho. It’s here that you find Hai Ky Mi Gia, a strip mall Vietnamese noodle joint sandwiched between a liquor store that advertises Tesoro Mio Tequila for $9.99 and an auto-parts dealer.
Until about a few months ago, Hai Ky Mi Gia used to be the neighborhood pho shop. And although it still serves pho, the house specialty is Chao Chow noodle soup, a dish originating from China’s Guangdong province. It’s one of Little Saigon’s lesser-known noodle soups, but if you’re familiar with it, you also know that the pre-eminent purveyor around these parts is Trieu Chau, which sits on the other side of the street from Hai Ky Mi Gia.
In fact, Hai Ky Mi Gia’s menu actually features an entire section titled “Trieu Chau Noodles.” If you ask the server what the difference is between it and the other bowls, he’ll tell you it’s the noodles. The “Trieu Chau” uses the same rice noodles as the pho, but the base broth and toppings are essentially the same as the signature bowl of egg noodles called “mi” and the cellophane noodles called “hu tieu nam vang.”
Along with the noodle options, you have the choice of having the dish “dry” or in a soup. If you choose “dry,” the noodles are tossed in a savory flavored oil. Think of spaghetti aglio e olio, and you get the picture.
Most customers, however, go the soup route. There’s just something about how a hot broth can find its way to patch the cracked parts of your soul. It’s a balm, a cure-all. Even watching people hunch over steaming bowls can be therapeutic. For noodle-soup-lovers, the greatest TV food porn are the shows in which the late Anthony Bourdain goes to some part of Asia and sucks down bowls just like this.
You’ll find the soup at Hai Ky Mi Gia is a clear, golden broth that nourishes like amniotic fluid. This is the same nectar that most mi joints in Little Saigon serve, genetically identical down to the drop. Sugary, umami-rich and salty, it’s like the concentrated essence of bird and hog. You could consume nothing else and still survive an Alaskan winter.
But at Hai Ky Mi Gia, there’s something special that happens when the “house special” toppings are layered into this broth. From the thinly sliced char siu, the five-spiced aroma of a Chinese barbecue—the kind that wafts from joints with hanging ducks in the window—permeates through your slurps. And then there’s the distinctive “wok-hey” flavor that gives the bowl a character that can only come from a blazing-hot stir-fry. It’s hard to know which component contributes it because there are so many.
For sure, you get crumbles of stir-fried ground pork and jewels of pork cracklings that gush fat. But there’s also steamed shrimp, fish ball, squid, a thin piece of liver and a quail egg. If these toppings are par for the course, Hai Ky Mi Gia adds something that trumps Trieu Chau’s deep-fried Chinese cruller: a whole fried shrimp suspended on a crispy raft of batter. Unlike Trieu Chau’s cruller, the shrimp is offered at no extra charge, and the crunchiness that surrounds it is light, crumbly and airy—a treat that gilds the lily.
The shrimp fritter immediately distinguishes Hai Ky Mi Gia from the pack, but all the tables in the dining room are stocked like at other Chao Chow joints. There are more condiments than you know what to do with. Sriracha is, of course, present, as are hoisin, ketchup, mustard and fish sauce. Then there are the jars with house-made pickled peppers, pickled garlic and the two chile pastes: one a bright, acidic sambal and the other, a sweetish, savory concoction swimming in oil as red as pepperoni grease.
Any doubts that the jarred condiments are made in-house go away when you see one of the aunties slicing up a mountain of garlic for the pickles. She does it right there on one of the dining room tables, next to customers who couldn’t care less as they hoover up their bowls.
Don’t bother trying to order any of the rice dishes. Because the restaurant is relatively new, only half of the rice plates listed on the menu are available. Instead, supplement your noodles with an order of the banh khot, crisp-edged and custardy bite-sized pancakes made with coconut milk that’s a savory version of Thai khanom khrok. Or heck, you can just walk across the street and get a taco!
Hai Ky Mi Gia, 4504 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 531-1909. Open daily, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Dishes, $7.50-$10.50.
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.