The first time I tried to find it, I couldn't. I simply couldn't. All I saw was a grocery store. A loud one. It was spouting frenetic techno music and a stream of Vietnamese public service announcement-sounding radio. Then a lady in the vegetable aisle dropped a jackfruit on my foot. I gave up and went across the street to Vientiane Thai Laos (also highly recommended).
The second time I tried to find it, I succeeded, but it was closed. Not for any particular reason, or at least no evident one. (If the reason was written on one of the Vietnamese signs posted here and there, I admit I may have missed it.)
The third time, I had a reputation to keep: I was giving a food tour of sorts and NEEDED ca nuong to complete it. And lo and behold, above the grocery, through the professional photo shop, next to the group of children practicing dance, and down a long hallway, there it was!
It wasn't too busy on a weekday for lunch. I walked straight up to the counter and attempted to communicate my order in Vietnamese. This marks the first time any Vietnamese words coming out of my mouth (other than 'soda chanh muoi, because I say that one almost every day) were able to be understood. Score! She even said, 'Good Vietnamese!' I beamed for the rest of the day.
So, regular sized grilled catfish shared between two people, plus xi muoi and soda chanh: $24.
You get bun (noodles). You get rice paper rolls. You get the requisite humongous plate of veggies. You get fish sauce. You get fermented shrimp/anchovy sauce.
And of course, you get the fish. Oh, the fish. 'Regular' size? Please. The thing's more than half the length of my arm. Crispy-skinned, like a perfect Thanksgiving turkey, and coated with peanuts and fried garlic, the surface gives way to flaky tender white meat. The meat by the spine's the best. My dad and I fought over it with our chopsticks like miniature sword-fighters. Plus, you can get some good meat out of the head if you try. The man across the aisle from us reduced his to a pile of bones and eyeballs. We were not as skilled.
You take your rice-paper roll, twirl it in water, lay it on your plate, fill it with fish and veggies and sauce, roll it up like a sticky little burrito, and fly off to flavor heaven. Like yours stronger? Use the darker, thicker purple sauce. For a lighter touch, use the clear-ish orange one. I like a lot of mint in my burritos, and they gave me more than enough.
Out of all the Vietnamese meals I've had in Little Saigon, I think this charmed me the most. It amazes me that this huge, perfect whole fish and its accoutrements on a cafeteria table in the back of a grocery store can even be had. That it's something I can just drive down the freeway and experience whenever I want, for chump change. I'm sympathetic to the plight of the catfish in foodie parlance - it's dirty, it's a bottom feeder, it's bland, blah blah.
It's ridiculous; this catfish is exquisite.