Little Saigon. Big Appetites. Even Bigger Flavors. Chef Robert Danhi & His Vietnamese Tasting Tour.
Chef Robert Danhi (rhymes with "pan-fry")
Robert Danhi knows food. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) — almost a requisite nowadays for any food professional. He was a sous chef by nineteen and a head chef just two years later. His certification list is as long as any wall that can fit the framed documents. He’s as much of a food geek as Alton Brown, with a wide breadth of knowledge in the art and science of food. He’s an Executive Chef Instructor at Southern California School of Culinary Arts and Chef Instructor at CIA, so he can school you too. If all that wasn’t enough, the man is a James Beard nominated author for his unbelievably comprehensive cook/food/scrap book called Southeast Asian Flavors. Show off.
Chef Danhi is, as he dubbed himself, a “hard-boiled egg”, that is a white shell on the outside, but Asian in his soul. (Which is to say he’s the reverse of me — a banana or Twinkie.) His Malaysian wife, Estrellita Leong, is mainly responsible for this transformation after she whisked him off to her homeland for a little vacay. The trip, however, turned out to be life changing and inspiring and would, from that point forward, guide Chef Danhi’s career and culinary influences. His immersive personality combined with his food adventures in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam resulted in a virtually edible opus that will make your stomach rumble with voracious anticipation as well as treat your mind to its delicious culinary minutiae.
In short, Robert Danhi is a guy you need to know. Lucky for you, he’s an accessible James Beard nominee. In fact, he and his sous chef, Ari Slatkin, are leading culinary tours through Little Saigon, an intimidating food jungle if one doesn’t know the Vietnamese language or culture. But, rest assured, with Chef Danhi, you’ll eat and you’ll learn and you’ll eat some more. (I could’ve done so much better in school if I had a teacher like Chef Danhi.)
I tagged along on a preview of his food tour in Little Saigon aka Westminster and Garden Grove, parts of the O.C. I much frequented when I used to live in the area. This “Northern Vietnamese Cuisine Adventure” is the first of a three-part culinary tour of Little Saigon (with the two other tours focusing on Central and Southern Vietnam).
Pick me up and cool me down.
This adventure began with a nice, refreshing jolt thanks to the iced Vietnamese coffee at the meet-up spot, Lee’s Sandwiches. Small portions of Lee's banh mi thit nuong were passed around as a sort of appetizer. This sandwich of grilled pork, paté, pickled vegetables with fresh cilantro on a crispy, chewy baguette was a nice basic intro to Vietnamese food, especially if you’re a novice to the cuisine and Little Saigon itself.
Banh "mini" mi.
However, if you’re a seasoned Vietnamese food vet, don’t fret. The Thuan Phat Garden Grove Superstore is like the being a kid in a candy store for Asian food connoisseurs. They’ve got an impressive selection of everything Vietnamese and then some. There are literally scores upon scores of fish sauces (or nuoc mam) to choose from as compared to, maybe, one choice at your local Ralphs. Same goes for the famous Thai Sriracha sauce, the store carries an amazing panoply of the popular pepper paste. Moreover, this portion of Chef Danhi’s food tour delves into the slightly arcane aspects of Vietnamese food like all those mysterious herbs that brighten your bowl of pho. Or, my favorite bit of Deep End Dining trivia: What type of ginger is used in Vietnamese dog stir-fry? It’s the galanga or blue ginger. (And to think, I almost named my last dog “Blue Ginger.”) Oh yeah, there also were live and somewhat angry crayfish crawling and itchin’ to pinch an eye out. Yum.
Dog gone good ginger!
Other delightful tastes included the Logan & Jujube Jelly Tea at Vua Tra Vua Kho Bo, a Vietnamese dried meat shop. It was jiggly, wiggly and refreshing, kinda like a Jell-O shot but subtle in flavor and without the booze.
Jelly tea shot. Hangover, not.
Vegetarians won’t feel left out of this tour either. (In fact, one of Danhi’s publicists is a vegetarian and she was nicely accommodated.) The Dong Phuong tofu factory sells and serves really, really fresh, made from scratch soy products from soy milk to tofu. Chef Danhi was particularly excited about the super hot soy milk so freshly bottled that the plastic jug is hot to the touch. While everyone else seemed to enjoy the mushroom tofu, I really relished the sourness and slight stink of the tofu with lemongrass and chile.
Tofu so fresh, you'll want to slap it.
The tour concluded at the Hanoi Restaurant naturally, since this particular culinary adventure examines Vietnam’s northern region. Again, perfectly presented on that muggy day as we arrived were cups of just crushed fresh sugar cane juices to cleanse our palates and to rejuvenate ourselves. As we staggered into the restaurant, employees brushed past us with bundles of sugar cane stalks ready for crushing. At that moment, I did feel transported to Hanoi, a city I’ve yet to see in person.
Cane! Sugar! Cane! Sugar!
While Chef Danhi set up his Soy Glazed Shaking Beef Salad demonstration, we were served Hanoi Style Spring Rolls (Nem Ran Cua Be) stuffed with pork, vermicelli, crab and wood ear shrooms. We wrapped it in a fragrant envelope of lettuce, perilla and mint and dipped into a sweet nuoc cham sauce. The same routine was necessary for the Sweet Potato and Shrimp Fritters (Banh Tom Co Ngu).
Shrimp & chips — Vietnamese style!
And what’s Vietnamese food without pho? Nothing, that's what! Pho-get about it! So, a basic albeit tiny bowl of pho bo (beef noodle soup) was presented to represent a significant part of North Vietnamese cuisine. It was the perfect size so as not to get that after pho coma which usually follows the consumption of a gigantic bowl of steamy pho.
The incredible shrinking pho.
Oh, can’t forget the sweet yet savory Grilled Pork Patties with Rice Vermicelli and Green Papaya (Bun Cha Hanoi).
Where's the bun with this Bun Cha?
At last, Chef Danhi was ready to demo his grand finale of Soy Glazed Shaking Beef Salad. What is it? I had no idea before this tour but it’s pretty much what it sounds like. In fact, you can see for yourself. Just press play below. I just love my Flip Video camera.
C'mon, Chef, let's see you shake it!
P.S. the Shaking Beef was really tasty and is simple to recreate at home.
Chef Danhi’s Shaking Beef Tour continues:
Coming up soon on Saturday, September 19th from 10AM – 2PM, Chef Danhi takes you on a Northern Vietnamese Food Adventure in Little Saigon.
On Saturday, October 17th, the adventure moves onward to the food of Central Vietnam and all the deliciousness the region has to offer, places like Hue.
Finally, on Saturday, November 21st, Chef heads down south for a taste of Southern Vietnamese cuisine where most of Little Saigon’s influence originates.
“All of his tours will incorporate markets, restaurants and a cooking demo of a recipe from Danhi’s book. Each Tour, Food, Beverage and a signed copy of Southeast Asian Flavors ($45 value) costs a total of $75. Join all three adventures for $175, including a copy of Southeast Asian Flavors. Contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 310 648 7970 to get complete details.”
For 75 bucks you too can go on this exotic food tour and have a James Beard nominated chef pal for a few hours. If you’re one of the first 20 to reserve a spot, you’ll also get your very own autographed copy of Southeast Asian Flavors ($45 value, which brings the cost of the tour down to 30 bucks! How does he do it?) But wait! There’s more! You’ll also get your very own pair of “Stop the Chop” reusable chopsticks with chic carrying sack. They’re fashionable eating instruments with a purpose: to end the wasteful use of disposable chopsticks. Be green while eating your green papaya. Who’s in?
Chef, maybe next time you can include this place in your tour (and I don't mean the fabric store).