Orange County announced the reopening of Phase 2 businesses on May 23, which allowed retail stores and malls to reopen in limited capacity, as well as restaurant dining rooms, after they were ordered to close in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19. The county’s Little Saigon, a hub for the more than 100,000 Vietnamese Americans residing in the area that mostly centers around Garden Grove and Westminster, is still gearing up for reopening. Some Vietnamese restaurants are slowly coming back to operation with sit-down dining, temperature checks, and hot noodle soup, while others are still trying to navigate the murky reopening scenario. Eater visits five prominent places in Little Saigon to see what the situation is right now.
Song Long in Westminster
Song Long is a Little Saigon institution, first opening its doors in 1985. One of their signature dishes is chả cá thăng long, an intensely aromatic dish of fried white fish (traditionally snakehead, but more commonly catfish) spiced with turmeric and fresh dill. The dish comes on a hot stone plate atop a bed of still-softening onions, the scent of sizzling alliums mingling with fresh dill and turmeric. And alas, this experience won’t be available for a couple weeks until the restaurant is fully prepared to follow state guidelines.
“We’ve got to comply with new rules and regulations and make sure that everything is safe,” says Terry Tran, the son of Song Long’s owner. “We’re trying to plan out the tables right now and make sure they’re six feet apart...to draw lines to make sure people stand six feet away from each other. We have to retrain our employees and make sure everyone wears face masks and gloves.”
Hu Tieu Thanh Xuan in Westminster
In stark contrast to the measured opening approach of Song Long, Hu Tieu Thanh Xuan on Bolsa Avenue has a fully operational dining room, with tables and chairs spread apart and parties being seated on opposite corners of the dining room as they arrive in an effort to create physical distance between diners. At 6 p.m. this past Wednesday evening, the restaurant was practically empty save for two parties, the diners spread out as far from each other as possible, distances of roughly 20 feet between tables.
The restaurant specializes in hu tieu, a noodle dish served either in broth or dry. Famed cookbook author and Vietnamese cuisine translator extraordinaire Andrea Nguyen wrote an extensive guide to hu tieu that delves further into the subject of the dish’s origins in Southern Vietnam and transformation stateside.
Hu Tieu Thanh Xuan’s dry hu tieu comes served with a tomato-based sauce that lends a bit of sweetness. At roughly $8 for a large bowl, the house special tapioca starch noodles are a steal on a menu riddled with affordable options. Still, the restaurant is still offering chopsticks from a communal chopstick valet and listing dishes on a laminated menus.
And while the “business as usual” setup was definitely jarring, there was something oddly reassuring about how the clear tapioca noodles didn’t arrive clumped together in a styrofoam box, the way the fresh-out-of-the-water moisture of the noodles helped to adhere the tomato-based sauce for a thorough mixing.
Hong An Bo 7 Mon in Garden Grove
Bò bảy món, or seven courses of beef, is a meal usually enjoyed at family gatherings and celebrations. Hong An Bo 7 Mon’s massive banquet hall — originally configured to seat more than 150 diners — is equipped for this purpose but the restaurant is still only taking takeout orders. Though plastic divider screens between spaced-out tables hint that the restaurant is preparing to open for dine-in, the owners of the restaurant were reluctant to share any information and refused to comment on a reopening date. After these photos were taken, the owners promptly locked the front door to the restaurant to prevent anyone from walking in.
Pho 79 in Garden Grove
Orange County’s first James Beard Foundation Award recipient is still operating as a takeout only operation, with no definite plans for reopening. One of the country’s first pho restaurants, Pho 79’s usually packed dining room and snaking lines have been replaced with just a single-file line of pick-up orders and a dining room that’s been relegated to a storage area.
When asked about when the restaurant would reopen, restaurant owner Tho Tran erred on the side of caution. “We don’t know yet,” said Tran. “The cases keep going up but restaurants are opening for dine in. We want to make sure everything calms down a bit.”
When asked how takeout business was going for a restaurant that specializes in noodle soups, Tran waved his hand with his palm facing down, indicating that business was “so-so.” There doesn’t seem to be any significant shortage of hungry patrons, though, as orders continued to be picked up right up to and slightly past closing at 8 p.m.
Pho Quang Trung in Westminster
The unquestioned leader in reopened dining operations and compliance is Pho Quang Trung, the beef (and chicken) noodle soup specialist on Bolsa Avenue. Staff check potential diners’ temperatures with contactless thermometers before they’re allowed entry. Guests are seated in a sequence that maximizes physical distance. A single server weaves around with as much distance from tables as possible working five different tables, dropping off disposable paper menus, and individually wrapped utensils.
Pho Quang Trung’s extensive menu has a familiar standout: The sizzling chả cá thăng long. The fish arrives hissing, the steam swirling like a fragrant tornado of sauteing onion, turmeric, and fresh dill. The smell induces euphoria, suggesting the unthinkable: That ready or not, dining in is back in Little Saigon — and it’s going to be hard to keep the diners away.