East Borough (Culver City)

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East Borough
9810 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 596-8266
culvercity.east-borough.com

East Borough, a Vietnamese restaurant that’s the partnership of a Costa Mesa restaurant of the same name and the team behind Pitfire Pizza/Superba Snack Bar, opened in Downtown Culver City a little over a month ago to much fanfare. Patrons raved about their lunch offerings of elevated versions of banh mi, bun, com, and other casual traditional Vietnamese dishes, as well as about their dinner offerings of a modern take on the cuisine with creative small plates and progressive large format dishes.

My coworkers and I went for lunch during their first week of opening, and were quite impressed. I ordered the pho baguette, which is basically a bowl of pho in banh mi form.  They don’t serve pho, but this proved to capture all the flavors and ingredients of what you’d find in the soup noodle: beef brisket w/ basil, bean sprouts, and chili (all the contents of a regular bowl of pho), topped w/ a clever sriracha hoison aioli, and served with an even more clever bowl of concentrated pho broth to be used as a dip for the sandwich – think banh mi French dip. A fairly straightforward translation, yes, but it does accurately capture the essence of pho. My coworkers seemed to enjoy their pork belly & egg rice bowl and tofu vermicelli noodles, respectively.

There is one issue most people will have with the restaurant (besides the difficulty of finding parking in Downtown Culver City): the prices. The appetizers are $6-8 (2 pieces of spring roll are $6) and entrees are $12-15 (including the banh mi – the pho baguette was $13). So yeah, not cheap at all. They do use high-quality ingredients, and portions are on the larger side, but that won’t make the prices easier to swallow for most. Some people, including coworker Han, refuse to pay this much for a sandwich that costs $2 in SGV/Little Saigon. It also doesn’t help that their Costa Mesa location, however more fast-casual, has basically the same menu at $3 less per dish. Dinner, which I have yet to try, is also on the higher side ($$$ price range), but at least the direction of the menu reflects that.

For now, East Borough is a great lunch option that isn’t necessarily priced as such. I definitely will be back (I’m especially looking forward to dinner), but during work hours it might have to be on someone else’s dime. Still, it’s by far the best of the Vietnamese offerings on the west side of town (over Nong La and Phorage), and certainly the most progressive-thinking. And they certainly know that they’re hot shit – rightfully so.

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Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Vietnamese Culver City $$$ N/A

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Ha Tien Quan

Bun Mam

Ha Tien Quan
529 E Valley Blvd, Ste 178A
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-1896

Despite domination of the San Gabriel Valley by the Chinese (at least from a culinary perspective), there is no shortage of Vietnamese restaurants in the area. You can most likely satisfy your cravings for pho, banh mi, or bun on just about every block of a major street. However, at Ha Tien Quan, a new-ish Vietnamese restaurant that opened on Valley Blvd in San Gabriel a few months ago, you won’t find any of those standard dishes. Instead, you’ll have to “settle” for dishes such as bun mam, an anchovy-based noodle soup with fish, shrimp, pork belly, and eggplant, and hu tieu nai sa-te, a lemongrass chili-based one with slices of deer. I doubt most people in LA, outside of regional Vietnamese households (Ha Tien is a city located in the southwest part of Vietnam, bordering Cambodia), have had these dishes.

So how did I hear of this restaurant, one with minimal critical and online presence? Well, there were a couple of places where Ha Tien Quan was featured, and they’re two very influential ones: LA Weekly, which featured the restaurant in a blog post before naming it one of their 99 Essential Restaurants of 2013, and the Gastronomer, who is one of the most respected food bloggers in LA and my go-to source for all foods Vietnamese. But all that this has resulted in are a dozen or so Yelp reviews and exactly zero reports from other publications/blogs; not that the restaurant is hurting for them though – we arrived on a Saturday night to a lively room, one that wasn’t completely full, but full of apparent regulars of the place who are friendly with the owner.

Although I felt a bit out of place (had the ambiance of a Vietnamese family gathering, one I was essentially crashing), I enjoyed my meal at Ha Tien Quan. I ordered the bun mam (which I described earlier), and it’s quite a genius bowl, combining both savory and sweet flavors, topped off by a briny effect from the anchovy broth that’s fantastically funky. It’s something I can get down to – or with, rather. The herbs and veggies that came on the side were also quite unique. We also split an order of banh khot, which are mini pan-fried rice cakes you eat with lettuce, herbs, and fish sauce (similar to banh xeo, which is more familiar to us novice diners of Vietnamese cuisine). The rice cakes are both airy and crispy, and even more delicious with all the accompaniments.

I look forward to my future visits to Ha Tien Quan and discovering new dishes to expand my Vietnamese palate repertoire. I might even be interested in trying the vegetarian versions of their dishes, which they serve (and those alone) only on every quarter and three-quarter moon days, in accordance to Buddhist traditions – check your lunar calendars.

Banh Khot

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Vietnamese San Gabriel $ B+

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Buu Dien

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Buu Dien
642 N Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 617-8355

Banh mi has to be the greatest value food. EVER.

Subway often has their $5 footlong promotions, and it’s popularly considered the cheapest sandwich of its kind. Well, sorry to ruin you Americans’ day, but for those five dollar you can get at least two banh mi in SGV. In fact, if you’re paying more than $3 for a single banh mi, it is legitimately considered highway robbery (except at Mendocino Farms/Nong La/Red Medicine I suppose, because of location and quality of ingredients). At roughly 10 inches or so in length, typical banh mi isn’t a footlong in length, but neither were Subway’s sandwiches for the longest time. But you get a variety of Vietnamese “exotic” cold cuts, pickled veggies, fresh cilantro and jalapeno, and mayo on a freshly-baked French baguette. For less than $3, tell me that’s not amazing.

It’s actually hard to find a banh mi that’s NOT acceptable in SGV, but banh mi is something I’d consider hard to master. The best version of the banh mi, however, is actually located in (the ever-increasingly-Vietnamese) Chinatown at Buu Dien. For $2, you can get the dac biet (basically means “house special”) banh mi, which has an impressive assortment of headcheese, cha lua (pork roll), liver pate, and sliced pork (those of you who want chicken or BBQ pork or whatever, you’re all fools), along with the requisite veggies and mayo that tastes homemade (either that, or the mayo is jazzed up with more vegetable oil and/or egg yolk + black pepper). Maybe it’s some magic spell put on me by the nice little old Viet sorceress that takes her sweet time making each of these banh mi one-by-one, or maybe it’s the understated but essential baguette that’s crisp and soft at the same time, but this banh mi just does it for me – no gimmicks needed.

For $10, the five banh mi I bought that day lasted me 3+ meals…

Cuisine City/Neighborhood Price Grade
Vietnamese Chinatown $ B+

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Red Medicine (2)

Paul and I came here on the Saturday after Larry and Michelle’s wedding a few weeks ago. We originally planned on going to Animal, but the earliest reservation was after 10pm (as usual), so Paul suggested Red Medicine, since he’s read good things about it, and wanted to see how Vietnamese flavors and ingredients can be interpreted in fine(r) dining. I was more than happy with this suggestion, as I felt my first visit to the restaurant was rather safe, my doing of course. But I was a bit worried, because I could totally envisioning him rushing to the kitchen and cursing out Chef Kahn for embarrassing Vietnamese cuisine, being the proud Viet that he is.

I had read about being able to request a tasting menu on Chowhound, so I inquired about it upon being seated. There were two options: $60 and $85. We chose the latter one, which was ten courses (seven savory, three desserts). Basically, the kitchen sends out ten dishes off the night’s menu, the portions being the same as their a la carte counterparts. So no tasting portions, just the actual dish placed in the middle for the two of us to share.

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AMBERJACK / red seaweed, buttermilk, lotus root, tapioca, succulents  ($16)

This reminds me a lot of a similar dish I had at Providence, which had kanpachi with red tapioca pearls. This version had a nice combination of different flavor profiles playing off one another. And of course, coming from Chef Kahn, a very beautiful-looking plate.

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SPRING PEAS / yuzu, soymilk-yogurt, trout roe, purple cabbage, coconut ($16)

One of my most hated foods is pea. I usually can’t stand the flavor – gives me somewhat of a gag reflex. However, these chilled peas, which weren’t mushy at all, were excellent. Again, very playful with the different flavors. The yuzu added some needed acidity, and the trout roe provided the savory taste.

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BRUSSELS SPROUTS / caramelized shallots, fish sauce, vermouth  ($9)

I had this on my last visit, and absolutely loved it. Not shy with the fish sauce, that’s for sure. Just as good as I remembered. If you like brussels sprouts, you’ll love this. If not, you’ll still love it.

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DUTCH WHITE ASPARAGUS / salsify, almond milk, burdock root, pomelo  ($20)

White asparagus is starting to pop up on more and more menus, and it’s no exception at Red Medicine. The almond milk gave the plump stalks of asparagus a nice, creamy flavor, although they weren’t exactly easy to cut with a knife (got a bit stringy). Didn’t think the pomelo pulp did much in the way of acidity as other ingredients provided in previous dishes.

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ALASKAN HALIBUT / charred mustard leaf,  boiled peanuts, wild garlic, burnt onion syrup  ($32)

A heavier dish than it appeared. The halibut, wrapped in a leaf, was cooked perfectly. Trying to get the perfect one-bite was less essential than the previous dishes though, as the flavors were more one-note here. Still, a great dish, and my preferred protein of the two that night.

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HEIRLOOM RICE PORRIDGE / egg yolk, hazelnuts, ginseng, echire butter  ($17)

Ah yes, the essential order at Red Medicine. This is really more of a buttery risotto in terms of texture, but man, is it a great dish. I read on CH that it was actually better NOT to mix in the egg yolk, but I digress. Gotta mix it up! If there’s only one dish you can order at the restaurant, this is it.

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AKAUSHI BEEF / pistachio, lettuce stems, celery, fermented tea  ($34)

Sadly, the savory courses ended on a minor disappointment. The meat was cooked rare, but ended up being tough and chewy, and the crust was hard (and not in a good way). It was a little better once you got a bit of everything on the plate, but I was let down by what is supposed to be similar to Japanese wagyu.

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COCONUT BAVAROIS / coffee, condensed milk,  thai basil, peanut croquant  ($9)

Moving on to dessert. It’s fitting that we’re getting three dessert courses, as Chef Kahn started his culinary career in dessert and has worked pastry in some of the finest restaurants in the country. This is the most popular dessert on the menu, present since Day 1. And it doesn’t disappoint.

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BIRCH ICE / almond praline, red currant,  green almond, jasmine  ($10)

One of our servers called Chef Kahn “The Mad Scientist” with regards to this dessert. I was thinking “why the fuck would I eat a fishbowl of bubbles with a piece of felt on top?” But wow, this was arguably the most impressive thing I had that night. The “felt” was soft almond praline (I think), the bubbles were jasmine tea foam, and under the bubbles were red currant, green almond, and crushed ice. Everything just worked in this. So creative.

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BITTER CHOCOLATE / kecap manis, oats, parsnip, brown butter, soy milk sorbet  ($11)

Like the coconut baravois, I had this one my first visit. Very good, but by far the most straight-forward dessert. And it was unable to deliver after we’ve had the previous two desserts.

The ten dishes that we had were all on the a la carte menu that night. Then what is the point of ordering the tasting menu, you ask? Well first of all, the tasting menu allows the kitchen to script a composed meal. For the most part, there was a nice progression from one dish to another. We started with two cold dishes, then an appetizer, then a veggie course, then three heavier courses, capped off with the desserts. Sounds like a plan to me. Also, the tasting menu allows the kitchen to send out what they think is best that night. While I consider myself pretty deft at ordering, I tend to order protein-heavy. So I would’ve most likely avoided Chef Kahn’s amazing vegetarian compositions, despite reading great things about them. Lastly, I did the math, and I believed Paul and I saved around $15-20 combined, if we compared what we had to the prices of those dishes on the menu (8/3/12 EDIT: fellow CH’er yangster caught a math error – we would’ve saved a combined $4. I could’ve swore we saved more. Maybe one too many drinks? Or maybe a free drink? Anyways, my bad guys).

So yeah, protip: order the tasting menu.

Chris Hei grade: A-

Red Medicine
8400 Wilshire Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
(323) 651-5500

Nong La Cafe

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Nong La Cafe: the new hotness on Sawtelle?

That’s certainly what it looks like, by the Tsujita-level crowds waiting for a table at the small Vietnamese eatery located right next to…Tsujita. I went a few weeks ago with coworker Han, and both of us ordered the bun bo hue, a traditional Viet rice noodle soup dish. From what I read, it wasn’t a big seller (hard to overcome the perceived Viet staples that are pho and banh mi), but all that changed once LA Weekly’s Squid Ink featured it. Now it’s among their best sellers I believe.

When I first looked at the bowl that was placed in front of me, I wondered if my previous experiences with bun bo hue have failed me, or if I just had a poor recollection. I remember a very dark broth, similar to that of a Chinese beef noodle soup, and containing slices of beef and pig’s feet. But what I had in front of me was more reminiscent of a spicy version of pho (lighter broth, with some chili oil drizzled on top). While the beef was still present, it was accompanied by hand-formed pork meatballs/patties.

Then I remembered: we’re in West LA, not Westminster. No way are they going to get by using fermented shrimp paste and pig’s feet. Anyways, upon first sip of the broth, that familiar lemongrass flavor still hits me good, like I envisioned. Just a bit…cleaner. Cleaner as in not as oily and MSG-ridden, but also with the connotation that it wasn’t as bold as I would’ve liked (due to natural limitations). The rice vermicelli, freshly made in-house, was nice. It’s hard for me to consider this a true bun bo hue, but I did enjoy the bowl in front of me. And that’s all I needed that day to convince me that Nong La was a gift to Viet food seekers in West LA.

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Bun Bo Hue

Chris Hei grade: B

Nong La Cafe
2055 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 268-1881

Nong La Cafe on Urbanspoon

Brodard

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Kind of cheating here, since I had Eugenia and Linh-Nam bring me back the food, but Brodard had been on my OC to-dine list for some time (I actually don’t have a to-dine list for the OC, but Brodard is one of the restaurants that was on the Hei radar – or as Lawrence suggested, the Heidar). Didn’t know what else to ask them to bring back, so I just requested the Nem Nuong Cuon (pork paste spring rolls) and the Chao Tom Cuon (shrimp paste spring rolls). They also brought back an order of the more common shrimp spring rolls as well.

What else can I say, other than that these are the best Viet spring rolls I’ve ever had? Really, they are. Not drive-down-to-the-OC-from-West-LA good, but damn good. The pastes were grilled well, the veggies complemented them nicely, and the fried egg roll wrapper inside is such a great contrasting touch. And they’re wrapped so nicely! The Nem Nuong Cuon and Chao Tom Cuon came with a special dipping sauce that was equally as good. Not overpowering like the sweet fish sauce or the peanut plum sauce that most people associate Viet food with, this had a nice balance of sweet and savory, with a nice meaty ragu-texture to it.

I basically ate all three orders in one sitting. Need someone to bring these up to LA on a more regular basis. Eugenia, please keep going to the OC.

Chris Hei grade: B+

Brodard
9892 Westminster Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92844
(714) 530-1744

Brodard on Urbanspoon

The Spice Table

Photo credit: LA Times

Greg wasn’t able to join me in any of our dinners near the vicinity of my birthday, so he wanted to make it up to be by taking me somewhere. Since he was coming from Fullerton, we decided to meet up at The Spice Table in Little Tokyo. When he asked me where we should go, I chose The Spice Table, because it had been on my short list of to-try places for a while, and I really liked the pig tails they served at The Gold Standard. Jen, who joined us, was looking forward to this dinner because she grew up in Singapore and wanted some authentic food.

The restaurant was smaller than I had anticipated, and VERY dark (not that my phone photos would’ve been much better anyways). Nice and cozy, seems like a nice date place if I ever went on one. We went during their one-year anniversary week, so we ordered bottles after bottles of Tiger beer for $1, and tried the ribeye special that wasonly available during that week. The ribeye steak, which was rubbed with what I believe was palm sugar and sambal before getting the grill treatment, was pretty tasty. Problem was, the slices of meat were a bit fatty (not in a good way) and looked hacked. Also, it was on the medium-well side (we asked for medium-rare).

However, the rest of the dishes were better. Fried cauliflower was simple enough, but if not careful, one could easily develop an addition. They were light and airy, and went well with the accompanying fish sauce. The sambal fried potatoes were similarly munch-worthy, except it’s easier to know when to stop when the heat from the sambal hits you. The curry fried chicken wings were good, but way too much batter IMO. The bone marrow, which made J. Gold’s favorite dishes of 2011 list, definitely lived up to the hype. The fattiness of the marrow paired so well with the prawn sambal. Just a bit sad that there wasn’t enough to go around.

Onto the satays. We ordered two different ones: the lamb belly and the foie gras ones. The lamb belly one was nice, but sadly weren’t as good as I expected it to be. The foie gras one was a surprise disappointment. The little pieces were fairly dry, and resembled chicken livers more. I really wanted to try the tripe one, but it wasn’t on the menu that day. Also ordered the kon loh mee, basically egg noodles with char-siu pork, ground pork, choy sum, and sambal, all which we mixed in a big bowl. Pretty good.

For the bigger plates, we ordered the black pepper crab toast, catfish claypot, chicken curry,and pig’s tail (duh). The first two, from the seafood section of the menu, were two of the better dishes we had that night, especially the crab toast. The chicken curry was…chicken curry. Decent, but nothing great. Blame Greg for really wanting a chicken dish (he was on a no-beef diet for Lent). The other real highlight of the night was, of course, the pig’s tails. One big tail came out in all it’s fatty glory, along with some lettuce, herbs, and fish sauce to wrap and dip. Very Viet presentation, and very delicious.

Overall, somewhat of a mixed experience with regards to what we ordered, but still mostly positive. The pig’s tail and the crab toast were the two standouts. Service was very good, and food came out fairly promptly. They even gave me a kaffir lime custard for my birthday (which was very good). I later on read that Chef Bryant Ng was away at a charity event that night, so maybe that might explain some of the inconsistencies, or maybe I just came in with too high of expectations. Still, we had a good dinner, and I have no problem making a return visit in the future. And congrats to Chef Ng on his Food & Wine Best New Chef honor.

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Chris Hei grade: B

The Spice Table
114 S Central Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 620-1840

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