We were supposed to head to Garlic & Chive that Friday. Waze estimated about a three hour drive so we kiboshed that insane plan and moved it to Sunday hoping for a more reasonable commute to Garden Grove.
Garden Grove? Had we ever been to Garden Grove? Surely. But when? And why? As we made the drive (little over an hour) we wondered, was this actually LA county? Jonathan’s list is clearly the best of LA, but here we were, in my Volvo, making our way to Orange County. Zay in the front, mom and Laz in the back.
Orange County. I drive to Newport Beach every week for work. Once, around the 2016 elections, deep in my OC commute, my navigation took me off the 405 and past junk yards and dealerships, where I saw row after row of Trump banners, signs and flags. “Here you are.” I thought bleakly.
But like LA, Orange County is vast. Full of Asian populations far denser than those found in the small confines off LA’s Stadium Way. We were entering one of those pockets on this chilly Sunday evening.
The night had a psychedelic edge. It just took off in that direction. The shopping Center that Garlic and Chives, sat in was on Westminster Blvd. I highly recommend taking yourself to dinner where you’re the minority. For us kids, that meant dining at the ‘Mall of Fortune.’
Zaya was in peak form and kept us in hysterics for the drive so when we finally got there and saw the crowd, we didn’t sweat the 45 minute wait. In fact we were instantly lured to the bakery next door glowing with bright neon and sweet, promising smells wafting through the air. Laz, who at 15 was in a perpetual state of “starving” needed a snack to tide him over.
Zaya took him to some poke place a couple doors down, while I, hypnotized by the bakery, grabbed a tray with the intent of grabbing a couple goodies to bring home for Matt and Esme.
Bright lights, bluntly descriptive signs (‘milk bun,’ ‘taro roll’), helpful elderly Vietnamese patrons, a man that walked out every three minutes with a new tray of concoctions yelling simply “bread!” It was dizzying, like Disneyland in the upside down world. Before I knew it I’d purchased two pink pastry boxes full of mysterious sweets.
We stumbled out of the bakery and back to Garlic and Chives to check on our table. We stood staring inside the restaurant willing the families to move it along. Finally, we were ushered in. We walked past tables of large parties. Vietnamese families tucking into dish after dish, spooning sizzling food onto each others plates.
We ordered. Zaya already excited that they had ‘Maggi’ seasoning on the table. To start, Saigon beers, pomelo salad (a JG favorite) perfect flavor and texture combo, citrus shrimp garlic and peanuts….(I want it now!) Crunchy chicken wings that Laz devoured, perfectly plump spring rolls bursting with fresh herbs. We were turned on. And the hits kept on coming.
Spicy, garlic, toothpick lamb. What a neat way to eat meat, savory bites skewered with a pick! Baked corn cheese, intense in richness and the perfectly odd foil to the vibrant flavors coming at us. Filet mignon served with pate , hot sausage and an egg, shaking filet with whole garlic which came served with a tiny floral bowl, deceivingly innocent, as it contained thin slices of burning, hot peppers. Sweet, garlic noodles, stir fry ong choy with garlic. Oh, and did I mention garlic?
Our server was adorable. Maybe 20, she gave us a lot of time, attention and a beaming dimpled smile. She seemed authentically pleased, and more than a little surprised that we were enjoying the meal. As we got up to leave she said to me “You liked it?” “We loved it!” I replied. “Oh, good” she said, “that family over there kept asking how those white people could like the food?” Unsure how to respond, “thanks!” I said enthusiastically.
The meal was truly excellent. Contender for best on the list to date. Mom, giddy with good food, did her best to show us how her insides were dancing. It was really very cute. I could try to describe it but I think you had to be there.