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5 of the Best Vietnamese Dishes to Try in City Heights

From toasted banh mi to savory pho, here's what to order in San Diego's Little Saigon
Vietnamese food dishes from Minh Ky restaurant in City Heights San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran

Americans love Vietnamese food— in fact, it’s one of the most popular cuisines in the country, along with dishes from Mexico, China, and Italy. But, in the past, the United States’ relationship with Vietnam has been… complicated.

When Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, surrendered to North Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975, it signaled the end of a bloody conflict that lasted nearly 20 years and left millions dead and displaced. Many who emigrated from the country found themselves congregating in what’s now City Heights, where Vietnamese refugees began to buy homes, launch businesses, and put down roots over generations. Those roots helped shape a unique cultural district along El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and Highland Avenues, which the city officially designated “Little Saigon” in 2013.

San Diego–based Vietnamese-American photographer James Tran says the official designation provides critical validation and visibility to the community. “It finally gave recognition to something that’s historically been there,” he points out. Without that acknowledgement, he worries rising property prices could trigger displacement, gentrification, and loss of diversity. But he hopes renewed interest will help people tap into the culture, especially through food. “People are excited, but they just don’t know where to go,” he adds. Here’s a start—head to the Heights to try these five dishes (and don’t let sometimes-difficult parking stand in your way).

Vietnamese food dish Thanh Toan Noodle Bowl from 
Thanh Tinh Chay restaurant in Little Saigon City Heights in San Diego
Courtesy of Thanh Tinh Chay

Thanh Toan Noodle Bowl

Thanh Tinh Chay

Regardless of whether you’re vegan or not, this plant-based eatery is worth repeat visits. The utterly gigantic menu offers noodles, soup, bánh mì sandwiches, stir fry, and beyond. Even the water is infused with herbs and organic fruits for a surprising flavor explosion. The heaping thanh toan noodle bowl comes with “pork” belly, cucumbers, peanuts, and more atop vermicelli noodles. It’s served with a sweet drizzle to apply as desired.

Vietnamese food dish Phở Tái Gầu from Phở Hòa restaurant in Little Saigon City Heights in San Diego
Courtesy of Yelp

Phở Tái Gầu

Phở Hòa

Along with fervent opinions about the city’s best taco shop, San Diegans also have their ride-or-die phở joints. Anything from Phở Hòa is guaranteed to be slurpable, but their phở tái gầu mixes thin layers of rare steak with the substantial heartiness of well-done brisket. The meat arrives simmering in a glorious bowl overflowing with comforting umami flavor and slippery noodles. I’m liberal with the sriracha and Thai basil, but add whatever accouterments you wish.

Vietnamese food dish Egg Rolls from A Chau Restaurant in Little Saigon City Heights in San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran

Egg Rolls

A Chau Restaurant

“It’s amazing how many people don’t know about [A Chau] yet,” Tran says. The restaurant’s Vietnamese egg rolls are thicker, heartier, and rougher on the outside than thinner Chinese-style egg rolls , and they come packed with savory pork and a satisfying crunch. A Chau’s other signature dish is bánh mì sandwiches, and while the sweet- and-savory sugarcane shrimp sandwich was a last-minute addition to my order, it ended up being my favorite. When you stop in, make sure to hit the ATM first—this old-school spot is cash-only.

Vietnamese food dish Bún Bò Huế  from Hoài Huế Restaurant in Little Saigon City Heights in San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran

Bún Bò Huế

Hoài Huế

Phở may be the country’s most famous soup, but the Central Vietnamese bún bò huế provides a richer, spicier, meatier bowl filled with thicker vermicelli noodles. Tran says many American diners have yet to catch on to the dish inspired by Vietnam’s former imperial capital, while even Anthony Bourdain favored the style over phở. Hoài Huế offers plenty of variations, but their classic #3C contains beef slices, pork meatballs, and shrimp balls (thịt, chả, and tôm cu) for what’s arguably the best surf-and-turf soup anywhere in town.

Vietnamese food dish Roast Duck Noodle Soup from Minh Ky Restaurant in Little Saigon City Heights in San Diego
Courtesy of Minh Ky

Roast Duck Noodle Soup

Minh Ky

Despite recent new ownership, Minh Ky kept its longtime menu of Chinese- Vietnamese fusion dishes, a concept Tran says is more common than some people realize. “I think it’s probably the best representation of Chinese-Vietnamese food in the city, and, honestly, some of the best food,” he promises. Minh Ky’s rice, noodles, and soups are especially beloved, but insiders know their roast duck noodle soup is what really pops. Pro tip: Ask for it “khô,” or with dry noodles.

By Beth Demmon

Beth Demmon is an award-winning writer and podcaster whose work regularly appears in national outlets and San Diego Magazine. Her first book, The Beer Lover's Guide to Cider, is now available. Find out more on

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