There’s a dish in Vietnamese cuisine called cá kho tộ, or clay pot fish. The fish is cooked in a rich, sweet, salty, sticky, fish-sauce caramel along with a smattering of chilis, usually jalapeños but often the even spicier bird-eyes. Locally, you’ll see this dish throughout Little Saigon. Every restaurant claims its own secret recipe with slight variations but there’s always one constant: It’s almost always made with catfish, and always delicious.
Vietnamese-style clay pot Chilean sea bass at Phan’s Kitchen & Bar in Irvine (Photo by Brad A. Johnson, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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But there’s an exception to every rule. And it’s not just available in Little Saigon. At Phan’s Kitchen & Bar in Irvine, the clay pot fish is made with Chilean sea bass. The fish is deeply infused with fish sauce, black pepper and wildly spicy whole bird-eye chilis. The sauce is dark and sweet and just when you think it’s maybe too sugary you’ll bite into one of those chilis and suddenly be begging for more sugar. Phan’s Kitchen makes the best cá kho tộ that I’ve found in Orange County, hands down. Only they don’t call it by that name. It’s listed on the menu simply as sea bass clay pot.
Phan’s Kitchen & Bar isn’t new. For years it’s been tucked into the ground floor of the luxury condo towers on Jamboree known as The Plaza. But the name recently changed. Until earlier this summer, the restaurant was known as Phans 55, the original location a brand that has opened additional, more casual offshoots in Irvine (Los Olivos) and Huntington Beach. Those offshoots have always served a simpler, shorter menu focused mostly on pho and banh mi. They don’t serve this fish. Phans 55 recently sold this location.
Fortunately, aside from the name, the new owner hasn’t changed anything at all. And this fish is as good as it has ever been.
Phan’s Kitchen & Bar
Where: 6000 Scholarship Dr, Irvine
When: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly
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