If you weren’t born or bred in Southeast Asia, then bun dau mam tom is something of an acquired taste. Served at Quan Bun Co Giao Thao in Garden Grove, the dish involves a sauce made from a fermented shrimp paste that can be best described as Vegemite with B.O.
To put it mildly, mam tom stinks like toe jam. And unlike other Vietnamese dishes that involve it, the malodorous substance is not in the background here; rather, it’s the star. It’s actually the dip into which you’re to dunk all that surrounds it: the cool rice noodles, the thin slices of boiled pork, the freshly fried tofu cubes, the cucumbers and the herbs.
But you don’t just dive into it as though it’s a platter of hummus and carrot sticks; there’s some prep to do. You need to squeeze lime into the mam tom, then stir the purplish, slightly chunky paste with chopsticks until it foams and froths like a milkshake. Incorporating air supposedly tames the saltiness and funk, but it’s still going to be intense.
The first taste is jarring. It’s not a subtle flavor; it’s salty, pungent and sharp. Think of the briniest canned anchovy and multiply it by 10. Then the smell hits you—the unmistakable stench of seafood at some stage of decomposition. And now that you’ve eaten it, the miasma of rot comes out through your nostrils. But for some reason, you can’t stop. The more you consume, the more addictive the dish becomes. You find that its concentrated umami punch elevates the tofu, the boiled pork and the noodles. They’re like blank canvases onto which the mam tom now drips and dribbles as though you’re Jackson Pollock.
As with Korean bossam, the dish is interactive. You build each bite, layering it and customizing it with herbs, minced garlic and Thai bird chiles. I loved it. Bun dau mam tom is apparently very popular in Hanoi, and I’ve discovered it’s on the menus of dozens of other restaurants in OC. That it’s been here all along—known by the Vietnamese, but hiding in plain sight for the rest of us—reveals how after decades of exploring Little Saigon, I still have mysteries to discover.
Thankfully, it stuck out on Quan Bun Co Giao Thao’s very brief list of specialties. The restaurant offers only 10 dishes in all. As hinted by the first two words of its name, the Vietnamese vermicelli noodle called bun is the focus here, and every item features its feathery wisps in one form or another, the most popular of which is the bun rieu.
If pho is like beer—pounded down like nothing and poured in as many places as there are varietals of ale—bun rieu is like a carefully crafted martini. And Quan Bun Co Giao Thao’s version is one of the best in the county. The pork broth is light but lip-smacking, and in the bowl are floating cubes of tofu, wedges of juice-bursting tomatoes, congealed pork blood, and flotillas of crab cakes made from ground pork and crabmeat. It’s the kind of soup into which you squeeze lime, dump the shredded cabbage and herbs that come on the side, then slurp, slurp, slurp. As you do, you’ll wonder why pho gets all the attention when bun rieu clearly has more going for it.
The bun cha Hanoi, which Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama famously ate in Vietnam on Parts Unknown, is also wonderful here. It comes on an elaborate serving tray and looks as complicated as the bun dau mam tom. But as Bourdain instructed Obama on that episode, to eat it, you take a wad of the noodles, soak them in the bowl that features charred meat steeped in a sweetened fish sauce, then inhale. In between, you nibble on raw garlic, pickles, pork patties and carbonized bits of belly that have now fully absorbed that golden, fishy punch.
At Quan Bun Co Giao Thao, you will not be in the kind of place where Obama and Bourdain dined, however. Located inside a Ramada Inn, the restaurant resembles a posh nightclub, complete with dangling chandeliers and a stage on which I assume the owner and cook, who is a famous Vietnamese singer, might belt out a song or two. And then there’s something about the “Co Giao Thao” part of its name. According to Vietnamese friends, it alludes to either a famous sex scandal or a sexy teacher fetish—yet another Little Saigon mystery that I’ll leave for the imagination.
Quan Bun Co Giao Thao, 10022 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 595-9917. Open Wed.-Mon., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Dishes, $8.99-$11.99. 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.