This is not the gritty streetism of an authentic pho joint unconcerned with its C rating; a common compliment for Pho Saigon will be its cleanliness. The layout is high contrast, black and white furniture on wood planking. Speakers blare Korean pop while a silent television flickers. Designed photo collages of menu items add to a congenial but somewhat impersonal vibe.
It seems equally balanced between its noodle soups and its other fare, so a Special Appetizer Platter seems a good starter. There's a pair of Egg Rolls, shreddy golden cylinders with an oily crunch, a tiny bit overdone. The Spring Rolls are better, with a clean snap of orange carrot, striped shrimp, cabbage and vermicelli.
The Dumplings are pink and meat-filled, familiar-tasting and worth a future try on their own. The Fried Shrimp is a novelty, long spears of dumpling skin wrapped around a straightened shrimp and fried. It's good enough, with the peanut dipping sauce that's more sweet than sour, but the spring rolls are probably the worthiest competitor.
On to the soups. The #18 is pho noodle soup with well-done brisket and flank steak. The beef is soaked in hot broth, stretched into fatty, shimmery sheets like stained glass. The noodles need a firm separating with chopsticks before digging into them, but are clear and of good toothsomeness.
The Seafood pho, with imitation crab and thin, cream-colored slices of fish cake, is clean and flavorful but patiently subtle, a canvas awaiting expression. Pho Saigon hooks one up with bottles of hoisin, red pepper paste, sriracha, mint leaves, cilantro, bean sprouts, white onion, and lime.
The soups are good and proper, but the grill should not be ignored. What they do quite gratifyingly here is Charbroiled Chicken and Shrimp over Vermicelli; the dark meat is chopped and charbroiled to a glistening gold firmness, with the right amount of savor and give. The (grand total of three) shrimp are fried nicely craggy, good but overshadowed by the chicken.
It is a cold dish with pockets of warmth. The freshly done vermicelli is unstuck-together and elegantly white, made crunchy by carrot and cucumber slivers, shredded lettuce, and a nod of chopped peanuts. A shy dressing can be poured over it all, pale and nutty, but either hoisin or sriracha will shout over it.
Service tends to crisp efficiency and friendly goodbye calls of annyeonghi gyeseyo!, but during slower hours it can be difficult to get the bill.
Every day the Koreatown location is open until four in the morning; the hardworking people at Pho Saigon sleep only for three hours before reopening at seven. The other locations--on Hill Street Downtown, and the original spot on Imperial Highway in La Mirada--are not open nearly as late, but have more expansive menus.
The 6th Street location is in a strip mall, but parking is a forced, albeit tips-only, valet. Try to catch a whiff of KyoChon next door.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vietnamese, Late Night/24 Hours, Korean, Mid-City/Koreatown )
1952 Colorado Blvd. (in Eagle Rock), Los Angeles, CA 90041
Phone: 323-258-8050 | map
Like Blue Hen up the street, Lemongrass is not meant to be a straight-out-of-Nam-Dinh-Province exercise in authenticity. The interior cultivates a careful peace, black and white paintings contrasting with walls of warm green tea. The tables are square and modern, a holy trinity of sriracha, red pepper paste and hoisin sauce awaiting in tins.
My ritual here is the iced Vietnamese coffee: a tall beaker with a French press plunger poised atop, with viscous, sweet condensed milk sulking at the bottom. Stir before pouring over ice.
Now that that's done and I'm happily sipping, I can move on to the goi cuon, steamed shrimp and pork summer rolls with vermicelli and mint. They're brawny and dry, not overminty, with a cool crunch. A warmed peanut sauce fills in the niches in your taste buds. The bi cuon chay is a vegetarian version of this; its shredded tofu and crispy strings of sweet potato have an even cooler crunch.
Pho for six bucks! At least at lunchtime. The pho dac biec is carnivore-bait, with meatball, tendon, rare steak and well done steak for complexity of texture. The broth is slightly sweet and sour, an exemplar of balance. Bianca prefers the shrimp pho.
Lemongrass does the sandwich act as well (not what you see at left; that's a pork & shrimp com dish). The banh mi thit has lengths of charbroiled pork, soft and yielding, bolstered by no-nonsense stalks of cilantro and carrot, all in a crisp, shiny bun that showers crumbs. The fish oil dipping sauce is sharp with soy.
Parking is on the street. There's a Lemongrass 2 opening up next door someday, featuring frozen yogurt.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Vietnamese )
I'm with Anthony Bourdain on this: Vietnamese food is so crisp, so fresh and minimalist, so unrealized. People are just now beginning to notice Vietnamese sandwiches and how much ass they collectively kick.
Blue Hen is not one of the steamy, battered kitchens along Western or in San Gabriel where you wave away flies while sweating over brilliant bowls of noodles and tongue-scorchment. It's a little strip mall joint with an eye toward locally grown organics and a pleasing palette: walls of sky blue and banana cream, with a milk chocolate ceiling that looks suspiciously tasty. Peach-tinted flower lamps hang overhead.
The menu is small, precise, and covers almost exactly one item per subject, perfected. The sandwich (bánh mì gà nuong, and I shan't even try to reproduce the diacritical chaos above that last letter) comes in a palate-scratching French loaf as expected, yet brings a sublimity from the chicken, herbs and cilantro mayo inside. And how can a cabbage salad be so good? I just see some carrots, chopped peanuts, cabbage in a garlic-shallot dressing... what else is in here? Cocaine?
The Turmeric russet fries are squarish and moist, and need no dipping sauce... but the Vietnamese have hit on the awesomely clever use of a fish oil dipping sauce, and it's offered here. Squeeze bottles of sweet hoisin and the required red-pepper blast of sriracha are provided.
Yes, you can get Pho... or even a Little Pho.
I asked the woman for Jasmine tea, and she asked me hot or iced. Little hearts burst over my head.
Thanks to Jeff H. for the recommendation... and for inviting me to my first experience of Blue Hen.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Healthy/Organic, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Vietnamese )
Buddha's Belly has sat on Beverly for the past half-dozen years, calmly meditating and projecting its logo onto the brick building next door. It maintains a cool and celebrity-attracting demeanor, yet isn't overly expensive*. The outside has a bamboo-walled patio, exotic and private; the interior is subtly lit with warm, even colors. The kitchen is open to view. Black-clad waitstaff, young and convivial, dart from table to table.
We tend to avoid Asian fusion, but were dressed well that evening and had the opportunity to drop by. We found the food ambrosial. Bianca enjoyed the two-beet salad, almost sashimi-like in texture, in a balsamic vinegar and soy reduction, with tofu cream cheese atop to gentle it. Far better visually and gastronomically than it sounds. She followed up with an elegantly rich Thai-style seafood curry soup, light on the gingergrass. I had the huge plate of Ginger Fried Rice, thick with sirloin steak, shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, and squares of red onion and red pepper wonderfully blackened around the edges. They don't skimp on the shrimp either, not for a dish that isn't much over ten dollars.
The winner of the OMG category was that night's special appetizer, the tonkatsu bao: a marriage of Japanese pork loin, perfectly fried, in a pillowy steamed Chinese bun, with tiny stems of lettuce and a miso spread. Serious nom nom nom, and we still dream of it. Bianca could eat it daily for lunch, and would probably stab me in the hand if I tried to pilfer some of it.
The sake list is small but carefully chosen; the Ai San San junmai is fruity and light, but as we like drier sakes we followed up with the simple Hakutsuru ginjo. I always like to order iced green tea when it's possible, and Buddha's Belly offers an organic one, very thin and subtle. There are also herbal tonics, hot or iced, if you want to charge yourself.
There's a new location in Santa Monica. Those Santa Monicans... always stealing our Asian fusion.
* Not per dish, anyway. We left unhungry with an eighty-dollar tab for two, and that's with two small bottles of sake.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Japanese, Chinese, Hollywood, Thai, Vietnamese )
2841 West Sunset Blvd.
Phone: 213-413-0888 | map
It is the sign of an L.A. establishment that it has no sign yet everyone already knew about it when it opened. Pho Cafe is tucked in a tiny mini-mall along Sunset, next to Rambutan Thai, overlooking the slightly nasty Silver Lake Blvd. underpass. The parking lot is small, the street parking difficult, and it is a treacherous thing to do the jaywalk-quickly-across-Sunset thing.
Pho Cafe has a sense of hipness, what with its clean orange and brown lines and the bright globes glaring overhead, but we treat it more as a good hot pre-midnight soup experience than an exercise in authenticity (for that, there are certain establishments down Western Avenue, old and rickety and without menus in English, that will leave you sweating and refreshed).
I usually get the pho #11: rare steak with meatballs, and an iced coffee. Bianca gets #13, the chicken with ginger sauce, and a Thai or Chinese beer. They give you a plate with mint leaves, scallions and bean sprouts with which to populate your pho, but take care with the sliced green peppers, lest you be wiping your nose like a rookie for twenty minutes in front of thin, raggedly beautiful Silver Lake people.
They also have tasty egg/tofu/mushroom crepes that are nicely crispy around the edges; this one (the #5) has shrimp and lemongrass beef, well-done and juicy. You chop it into sections with a spoon, then try to separate the very sticky pile of spring roll paper to make a nearly successful spring roll.
It's cash-only, but there's an ATM in the seedy-looking liquor store there.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, Vietnamese, Late Night/24 Hours )