In a lot of ways, Quan Mii is indistinguishable from the hundreds of other eateries in Little Saigon. It’s on Bolsa, tucked in a corner of one of those sprawling strip malls whose storefronts offer every conceivable service, from financial planning to hypnotherapy. If you didn’t know it specialized in the acre-wide Vietnamese crepe called bánh xèo, you wouldn’t be able to pick it out from a restaurant that does pho.
You stir your ice-laden glass of cam vat (Vietnamese-style, fresh-squeezed orange juice) to dissolve the sugar, and then take a drag, discovering it’s as refreshing as it is anywhere you’ve had it in Little Saigon. But then you observe the customers at the next table swirling goblets of wine. That’s when you start to notice other things about Quan Mii.
The place is brightly lit and spotless, with the gleaming veneer of a restaurant that just opened. There’s also a higher level of attentiveness here, something historically not associated with Little Saigon. The waiters, who come around to refill your water glass at regular intervals, also keep asking, “Is everything okay?” The most curious difference of all is the absence of Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha. Instead, the servers bring out two bottles of a brand called Mii Sauce. As you read the labels, you note the restaurant and the bottles are inextricably linked, if not owned by the same person.
Which came first? The restaurant or the sauces? There are opposing camps on this. But if the restaurant was built as a proof of concept for these sauces, it’s working. The chefs dribble the original flavor over the melt-in-your-mouth, crispy salmon-belly appetizer. They zigzag it over the fried tofu blocks just underneath the topping of shaved bonito and scallions. They even douse an appetizer of lacy-crisp, fried, fish cake and quail eggs with it, something you’ve never seen anywhere in Little Saigon even in its unsauced form. And if the chefs’ dose isn’t enough (and it really isn’t), squirt some more from the bottle. The closest thing it resembles is an umami-imbued plum sauce. The spicy one from the red bottle, on the other hand, is like a mixture of hoisin and Sriracha. “Can’t Eat Without It!” is Mii Sauce’s motto, and a label taped to the bottles tells you which local grocery stores carry it.
Bánh xèo’s trademark sauce is the sweet-and-sour nuoc cham, but throw on some Mii as well. The crepe is ethereally light, crispy and nearly greaseless. The fillings include not only the usual bean sprouts, shrimp and pork, but also jicama, which adds to the texture. Every order of bánh xèo comes with the obligatory Amazon of herbs, a stack of dried rice-paper discs and something filled with hot water in which to moisten them one-by-one. Lay down a wetted rice paper on your plate, then add a few herbs, cucumber, lettuce and a torn swatch of the crepe, followed by fillings. Then roll. It takes a few tries, but refine your technique by watching how the other patrons do it. By the third one, you’re a master.
The most expensive and elaborate dish is a ginger-stuffed striped bass steamed and served whole with a stir-fry of pork, vermicelli noodles, dried lily flowers, and shiitake and wood ear mushrooms. And though you’re given the same herbs-and-rice-paper setup to roll and eat with the fish, it’s more tedious with this dish. Since you have to navigate your way around fish bones that don’t always make themselves known until they’re already in your mouth, it’s as though you’re performing delicate surgery. The easiest dish to consume is the restaurant’s other specialty: the Central Vietnamese noodle soup called mi quang, which has wide yellow noodles halfway submerged in an intense broth while also being covered in enough herbs and lettuce to constitute a salad.
Quan Mii offers other Central Vietnamese specialties including banh uot (steamed rice noodle sheets covered with a flurry of dried shrimp) and banh beo (steamed rice cakes in tiny saucers), as well as a do-it-yourself shabu-shabu-style hot pot with either rib-eye or salmon. Swirl the raw meat in a gurgling broth heated by Sterno; per your waiter’s suggestion, dip it in more Mii Sauce as soon as it’s done. Then imagine what kind of restaurant Huy Fong Foods would come up with if they followed Quan Mii’s business model.
Quan Mii, 9541 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 418-9644. Open daily, 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$40, 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.