The Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, arrives on Feb. 10 in 2013 — the Year of the Snake. Tet, the Lunar New Year, is the most popular and festive holiday in Vietnam.
Westerners can imagine it as the Christmas and New Year holidays combined, though without the accompanying religious significance that is usually applied by those of the Christian faith.
People in Vietnam or of Vietnamese descent wish each other well and offer prosperous forecasts for the coming year, as in the Western version of New Year on Jan. 1, and also gather for special family meals.
In earlier times, Tet marked the beginning of spring and thus was a welcome break between the harvest and planting seasons. The focus is to relax after a hard year of work, forgetting past troubles and to make preparations for the new year.
Traditional activities include remembrance of ancestors, special meals at family reunions, flower displays in the family home, visiting relatives and friends, receiving gifts, and even opening new businesses.
The snake is considered a lucky sign in the Vietnamese zodiac, with love, peace and prosperity forecast for 2013.
And, for diners in South County, healthy eating as well.
“We want the world here — our doors are open to everybody,” said Mitchell Nishimura, who serves as a manager at Cali Baguette & Pho, which is now serving authentic Vietnamese cuisine at its location at 303 Broadway in western Chula Vista.
The restaurant will celebrate Tet with decorations of Lucky Flowers (pink or yellow in color) and the lei see — small red envelopes that elders put money in and give to youngsters at family gatherings as a sign of good luck.
The Chula Vista location is the first venture for the Cali Baguette Family at a full sit-down dining establishment after starting with a smaller shop in City Heights six years ago. Since opening in November, the Chula Vista restaurant (now one of four in the modest chain) has begun to attract a regular clientele with its emphasis on healthy dining options.
Only a few dishes are fried and no MSG is used in the preparation of any food at the restaurant.
The cooking is based on family recipes — and a love of food and culture is shared with South Bay diners.
To be more specific, the cuisine is French-Vietnamese fusion, given Vietnam’s colonial past, woven with an eclectic California flair. The menu is reflective of Vietnam’s three geographical regions (north, central and south).
The signature baguettes (Banh Mi) have been the cornerstone of the restaurant’s growth. The 12-inch sandwiches start at $3 and offer a tasty option to standard Western-style submarine sandwiches. Fillings include cold cuts, rotisserie chicken, fried egg, grilled beef, pork loaf, barbecue pork, Cajun shrimp, turkey with pesto, sardines, vegetarian loaf, meatball, Black Forest ham, Asian sausage, Vietnamese ham and tuna.
For more traditional Vietnamese dishes, there are Pho (pronounced fuh) rice noodle soups, Com (rice plates) and Bun (rice vermicelli dishes).
We tried the Pho Ga (chicken) and found it to be very hearty. Though the generous portions of chicken breast are soft, we still used a knife to cut them up. Try the Pho Ga paired with a ginger sauce.
(The more traditional Pho is made with beef broth.)
A note on rice noodles: They are so delicate that they take only 10 seconds to cook in boiling water, and are therefore very easy to digest.
Popular rice dishes include the Com Suon Dai Han (barbecued short ribs), Com Suon Nuong Sa (marinated charbroiled lemon grass pork chop) and Com Ga Nuong Sa (marinated charbroiled lemon grass beef).
The Bun dishes are served with a fresh mix of Romaine lettuce, bean sprouts, carrots, daikon and cucumbers. Mix it together like a salad and top it with an accompanying sauce for an exotic — and healthy — meal.
All the entrees are economically priced: nothing is more than $7.
Appetizers range from $3.50 to $5. Spring rolls (wrapped in rice paper and crafted with the meticulous precision of a sushi chef) are a popular appetizer, with vegetarian, pork, tiger shrimp, chicken and beef options.
For those seeking more crispy alternatives, the menu also includes fried egg rolls (a savory mixture of ground pork, shrimp, carrot, taro, onion, cellophane noodles and mushrooms).
The sumptuous fruit smoothies (fruity strawberry, mango and taro are all good choices), milk teas and coffees top off a very enjoyable dining experience. All specialty drinks are $2 to $3.50.
The Chula Vista location, which offers pick-up orders and goodies in its front lobby express area, is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. The same menu is offered daily.
Call 427-4888 for information.
Chula Vista’s intimate community theater is offering its first production of the 2013 calendar year — Brandon Thomas’s “Charley’s Aunt.” Directed by Bob Christiansen, the OnStage production is slated for a run through Feb. 16. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Sunday. The theater is located at 291 Third Ave. For more information, visit the website at www.onstageplayhouse.org or call 422-7787.