It took a long time to review Hong Phuong Restaurant, a selfishly long time spent savoring its wonderful collection of Vietnamese dishes.
The first visit was accidental, a quick plunge inside to escape an aggressive and hostile derelict. The restaurant could have been as seedy as the derelict, another of those shabby, murky places that inhabit the back streets of downtown Los Angeles. That's what it looked like, at least. But the room turned out to be clean and well-tended, the atmosphere quiet, the customers Vietnamese, relishing a taste of their homeland.
Later trips under more pleasant circumstances gave the opportunity to try everything from soup to Chinese salted plums, the latter in an icy drink called xi muoi that is simultaneously sweet and salty, a tantalizing effect. One of the soups, canh chua ca, is very much like the hot and sour shrimp soup of neighboring Thailand, with interesting differences. There are no chiles, the sourness is tempered with sweet, and the base of the soup is beef broth. Pineapple chunks and tomato wedges join shrimp, mushrooms and bean sprouts in the Vietnamese rendition.
Thai warm meat salads have their counterpart in goi sua tom thit, a mound of cucumber, cabbage, carrot and onion topped with pork, shrimp and a lot of peanuts. The sweet-sour dressing differs from Thai dressings in its lack of chiles.
Another dish shared by the two countries is the large, crisp crepe that the Vietnamese call banh xeo and the Thais khanom bueng yuan. The Thais accompany the crepe with sweet-sour cucumbers, whereas the Vietnamese like it with nuoc mam sauce, the mixture of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and hot chiles that accompanies many of their dishes. At Hong Phuong, the crepe is stuffed with shrimp, pork, onion and bean sprouts. Thai fillings may include sweetened coconut.
One can't generalize about Vietnamese cuisine from the food served at Hong Phuong, for this is southern cooking, prepared and served by a family from Vung Tau on the coast, about 20 miles from what used to be Saigon.
Their cooking is not always as mild as the chile-less soup and salad would indicate. Ga xao sa ot, which is spicy chicken with lemon grass, and a beef salad called bo luc lac have good dashes of hot red chile. Bo luc lac is a salad only in the sense that it comes on a lettuce-lined platter decorated with tomato slices. The dish is more of a stir-fry, with the meat served hot in a rather oily sauce.
To see what can happen to ground beef in Asian hands, try the charbroiled beef rolls called bo nuong mo chai. These are fat meat dumplings with sweet-hot seasoning wrapped in what looked like a thin bit of fat. They can be eaten plain, but the Vietnamese way is to wrap them in rice paper along with bits of lettuce, cucumber, mint and carrot, then dip the bundle in nuoc mam sauce.
Succulent, sugary tasting charbroiled pork chops, called suon nuong, are served on top of rice so the juices can drip through, an excellent plate for only $2.80 on the lunch menu. Prices for other dishes are similarly low, except for some complicated-sounding fire-pot combinations.
It is hardly necessary to mention that pho, the beef noodle soup that Vietnamese eat for breakfast as well as later in the day, is on the menu. It would be hard to imagine a Vietnamese restaurant without it. Or without ca phe phin, the strong, French roast coffee served in a glass with sweetened condensed milk. The coffee can also be ordered iced, a pleasant alternative in hot weather.
Hong Phuong Restaurant, 711 1/2 New High St., Los Angeles, (213) 972-9573. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Thursday. Visa, MasterCard accepted for orders over $10 ; cash only under $10. Validated parking at Man Wah supermarket.