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RESTAURANT REVIEW : At Tea Sympathy, Vietnamese Cuisine Is the Better Choice : The soft rolls and soup dishes are outstanding at this Simi Valley hideaway.

August 26, 1993|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's just a storefront restaurant, an inconspicuous one on Los Angeles Avenue in Simi Valley.

Driving down the street, past the multitude of shopping centers and strip stores, you could easily miss it. The "bring 'em in" signs on the Taco Bell next door overshadow the older building, with its neutral architecture and simple sign on the side wall.

But if your glance should happen to be drawn in the direction of the sign, you might take in two intriguing bits of information. For one, the sign says Tea Sympathy. (No, that's not Tea AND Sympathy.)

It also says that this restaurant serves two types of Asian cuisine. Tea Sympathy is both a Chinese and a Vietnamese restaurant. It was the latter that drew us in.

No matter that there are perhaps twice as many dishes on the Chinese side of the menu. Or that only about 30% of the patrons order the Vietnamese dishes. It is the Vietnamese food that makes this restaurant worth the trip.

And, co-owner My Linh Le said, once the patrons looking for Chinese food have tried the Vietnamese menu--with items such as lemon grass chicken, cold soft rolls, pork vermicelli or garlic roasted shrimp, they generally move over to the Vietnamese side of the menu.

Eating Vietnamese cuisine, noted Le's husband and partner, Kai Linh Le, is a matter of balancing flavors, of eating a bit of this and a bit of that, of mixing sweets and sours and salts and spices.

This is apparent in the garlic roasted shrimp ($6.25). The shrimp are slightly salted, firm, crisp and not overcooked, the garlic sauce outstanding.

With that dish, I'd try one of Tea Sympathy's outstanding soups--a large bowl of catfish sour soup ($6.25). The dish is crammed with fish and vegetables. As expected, the soup is sour, but it's almost sweet and sour, with pieces of pineapple, sweet peppers and tomatoes.

As a starter, one of the menu's most interesting items is the soft rolls ($4.25). They're served cold in rice paper, stuffed with barbecued pork, shrimp, mint and cilantro. The rolls are crisp and fresh inside the rice paper, a melange of flavors typical of Vietnamese cooking.

Another house appetizer is the crisp Imperial rolls ($4.25) of shrimp, pork and vegetables. To make a full meal of these, you can also get them served on a bed of vermicelli ($4.45)--tiny, delicate rice noodles. The deep-fried rolls, which are moist inside, are not too oily, as can sometimes be the case.

One thing Tea Sympathy does well, in these dishes and in others, is cook the meats gently, letting chicken and pork and beef come to the table especially moist and tender.

Soups are the best dishes at this Simi hideaway. The egg noodle soup ($4.25), though lacking a bit of the character of the catfish sour soup, is stuffed nevertheless with noodles, pork, crab and shrimp. The stock is chicken, the dish rich and flavorful. The soups are fine examples of the combination of tender, properly cooked meats with the seasonings that give Vietnamese food its subtle character. Onions and garlic set the flavor pattern in this cooking.

Lemon grass chicken ($5.25) is accentuated by its sauce. The bird is stewed, then crisped; onions are a heavy ingredient, and the sauce, from a fish sauce base, is just a bit spicy. Chicken, as someone once said, can be a very dull bird, but with this sauce, that problem is left far behind.

Dishes such as the curry chicken ($5.25), which is perhaps too lightly spiced, with just a trace of the coconut milk with which it is made, may be nothing to rave about. And I'd put the shrimp and beef on soft egg noodles ($4.75) in the same category.

Tea Sympathy, as a Chinese restaurant, has been around for 22 years. In 1989, the Les took it over and added the Vietnamese items to the earlier Chinese menu. They've structured the kitchen--a very large one, if you chance to look back there--so that there is always a Chinese and a Vietnamese cook on duty.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Tea Sympathy, 1470 Los Angeles Ave., 527-4055. Open for lunch seven days, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner 5-9 p.m. Reservations accepted, major credit cards accepted; beer and wine. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$20.

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