In the ebb and flow of Little Saigon, Brodard was the Rock of Gibraltar. Since Diane Dang and her daughters opened this restaurant in 1996 at the Mall of Fortune—behind a 99-Cent-Only store in an alleyway past the dumpsters—it has arguably become one of the most influential landmarks for Vietnamese cuisine in the county, if not Southern California. On its menu was just about every conceivable dish in the Vietnamese-food encyclopedia. In case you’re still unfamiliar, the main reason for Brodard’s success is its signature item, the nem nuong cuon.
Brodard’s women singlehandedly invented it. It starts with lettuce, a slender piece of deep-fried egg-roll skin, cucumber, chives and nem nuong, a ruddy and springy concoction made of pork or shrimp that isn’t quite a sausage and not really SPAM, but a combo of the two. Everything is then rolled up tight inside translucent rice paper.
But what ultimately makes this the spring roll to end all spring rolls is the sauce. The murky, orange-colored dip is served warm and thick, its gloppy consistency halfway between soup and glue. It tastes garlicky and sweet and has floating bits of what I assume is ground pork. But that’s all I can tell you about it. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully for more than a decade to decipher the secrets of this guarded recipe, as have other nem nuong cuon purveyors who’ve tried to reverse-engineer it. So far, only Brodard (and its sister restaurants Brodard Chateau and Corona Del Mar’s Bamboo Bistro) can make the sauce that makes the rolls sing.
Recently, the Dang family did what I thought was impossible: They moved Brodard and its entire industrial-level operation into a brand-new, 8,000-square-foot location in Fountain Valley. Upon seeing it, I realized this new building is the venue Brodard has always deserved. The parking lot is larger, the location more visible, and inside the expansive room that now includes a separate dessert counter, there’s also a bar.
I ended up at the bar the night I visited. It offered immediate seating, which was something that wasn’t possible at the old Brodard. If there were a line (and there’s always a line), I would’ve had to wait up to an hour for a table along with the other nem nuong faithful. This time, I was able to bypass the wait list and saddle up next to a chatty Caucasian couple. They’d just finished their second bottle of wine. And through slurred speech, they told me they hadn’t heard of Brodard until they saw that it opened here. They loved everything and planned to come back often.
This new Brodard is different. It’s now more accessible to the mainstream and more modern than I remembered. The service, from what I experienced that night at the bar, was attentive, professional and on par with Brodard Chateau, which caters to a more upscale crowd than the original.
And since it all felt like a new restaurant, I decided to break free of my go-to dishes and try something I’d never tried before. My favorite entrées, which include the stir-fried glass noodle with crab and the grilled pork chop with broken rice, would have to wait.
That night, I ate banh khot tom—rice-flour batter formed into little cups that nestled curls of shrimp. They’re basically miniature, single-bite versions of the banh xeo. I ate them with the same supply of herbs and lettuces that also accompany the crepe, but since their shape allowed me to scoop up the dipping sauce like a ladle, they were much easier to eat and enjoy without making a mess of my table or myself.
In the rice porridge, I found the ultimate winter antidote—a hot, simple gruel full of starch and chicken flavor that was able to warm me from my extremities to my soul. Not unlike other Asian rice porridges, Brodard’s contained julienned strips of ginger and diced scallions, but somehow, this bowl was more comforting than any I’ve had before. Swimming in the white sludgy depths were huge pieces of sole fillet that disintegrated in my mouth.
Before I realized I needed to let them soak and soften in the sauce, I didn’t like the dish of crispy rice noodle with seafood, which had pan-fried pad Thai-style noodles compacted into thick, crusty swatches topped with a stir-fry of vegetables, fish cakes, shrimp and squid. But once it absorbed the gravy, I ended up loving it like every dish I’ve had here.
And of course, I ordered the nem nuong cuon—everyone has to. Not having it when you’re at Brodard is like going to Hawaii and avoiding the beach.
Brodard, 16105 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (657) 247-4401; www.brodardrestaurant.net. Open daily, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Entrées, $6.95-$15.95. 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.