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Spring roll showdown in Little Saigon

  
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By JEFF OVERLEY / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

There are 56 numbered dishes on the menu at Dat Thanh in Westminster, but the first one is all anybody wants to talk about.

It's the traditional Vietnamese pork sausage spring roll, and the expert execution is bringing an improbable rival to Brodard, Little Saigon's longtime master of nem nuong cuon.

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A plate of Chao Tom Cuon (Shrimp Sausage Spring Rolls, yellow in foreground) and Nem Nuong Cuon Thu Duc (Barbeque Pork Sausage Spring Rolls) is served at Dat Thanh. The cozy nine-table, Vietnamese eatery has only been open for four months, but already has a loyal following.
CINDY YAMANAKA, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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Dat Thanh

Where: 10032 McFadden Ave., Westminster

Contact: 714-650-0910

Hours: 10 a.m.– 9 p.m., Thurs.–Tues. Closed Wed.

Recommended:

Pork sausage spring rolls; combination plates with broken rice.

Payment: Cash only

If that sounds a bit inside-baseball, think of the recent hubbub about Five Guys challenging In-N-Out's supremacy. Pretty much the same thing, Southeast Asia-style.

In this case, instead of buns and beef, we're talking rice paper and pork. Grab a seat, if you can, inside Dat Thanh's microscopic dining room and be prepared to wait — rolls are made to order, and it's no easy task, each one taking about 60 seconds to fill and fold.

When the translucent torpedoes arrive, it feels like Christmas, so flawlessly wrapped are they. Admire briefly, then dunk into a satay-like sauce redolent of peanuts and peppers. If you're feeling bold, the staff will mince a (possibly lethal) chili for you to swirl in the dip, but mere mortals should think twice.

Once breached, the sticky rice paper reveals a rainbow — green mint, cilantro, lettuce and cucumber, orange pickled carrot, white pickled daikon and pink fresh-made sausage that seems like the progeny of gourmet hot dog and kielbasa. A fried tube of crispy egg-roll wrapper runs down the center.

The implications of all this are being cast in grandiose terms by local foodies.

"Can Anyone Overthrow Brodard?" asked Dave Lieberman of OC Weekly in a taste test where he gave Dat Thanh a slight edge.

"A newcomer has all but unseated Brodard," declared Miles Clements of the Los Angeles Times.

"It's the David to Brodard's Goliath as far as nem nuong cuon," wrote a Yelper named Coco L.

Nancy Nguyen, part of the family team running Dat Thanh, admits the confrontation was intentional. "We've been wanting this for I don't know how many years," she says.

Dat Thanh is only four months old, but it existed previously under the same name in other locations – including one purposely opened near Brodard.

In those days, Dat Thanh played second fiddle, but social media such as Yelp have helped spread its name this time around. "We didn't have the right publicity," Nguyen said. "We didn't know how to advertise ourselves back then."

Nguyen says her restaurant's rolls , despite having identical ingredients to those served at Brodard, have superior freshness, and I must agree. Dat Thanh, perhaps because it faces lower demand, is putting out a crisper, brighter, snappier product. Simple as that.

Moving on, I do think the other 55 items on Dat Thanh's menu are also buzzworthy. Diners can try all sorts of exotic goodness with a combination platter, and I go with No. 8, a carnivore's dream.

Kalbi (aka galbi) short ribs have the requisite caramelized exterior, yet have retained an uncommonly pink inside. A skewer of grilled shrimp is sweet and soft, while a shrimp cake is shellfish pureed with water chestnuts, wrapped in tofu paper and fried to a flaky finish reminiscent of filo.

There's also a chewy pile of salty shredded pork meat and pork skin, as well as a spongy egg-and-pork patty that mimics a cheeseless quiche.

All of this is set atop broken rice — fluffy, couscous-like grains crushed into small fragments — that you soak with sambal oelek and fish sauce that's spiked with vinegar and sugar. Do the same with vermicelli noodles, whether they come laden with juicy chicken thigh meat or positively unctuous slivers of barbecued pork.

And don't miss the egg rolls. Fried traditionally, and filled with finely minced pork and veggies, they are the oily yin to the spring roll's refreshing yang.

The only miss is No. 56 (bun rieu), a bowl of soup that impresses with its size but lets down with its clashing combination of one-note chicken broth and crab paste.

But hey, that's the last dish on the menu. After item No. 1, it doesn't seem like Dat Thanh needs to do much else.

Orange County Register reviewers visit restaurants anonymously and pay their own way, for an objective and unbiased look at each establishment. After visits, reviewers phone the restaurant to arrange photos and get more details. Money, gifts or free meals are not accepted in exchange for reviews.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7952 or joverley@ocregister.com


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