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Suddenly Saigon

Vietnamese cafes are springing up in neighborhoods from Venice to Pasadena. They're as stylish and fun as the cuisine is fresh and flavorful.

September 22, 2004|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

For a moment the sharp fragrance of lemon grass merging with leafy aromatic greens transports me back to the humid heat and clamor of Saigon.

But the din I hear isn't the sound of a Saigon street. It's the clatter of an open kitchen over the hum of conversation at Gingergrass, the always mobbed Vietnamese cafe in Silver Lake.

Vietnamese food is hot.

Neighborhood cafes serving the cuisine are popping up from Venice to West L.A. to Pasadena. And people aren't coming to them for the flavorful dishes alone: The new restaurants are stylish scenes, astutely geared to the temperaments of their neighborhoods.

The gorgeous fragrance at Gingergrass comes from my salad: marinated, grilled flank steak arrayed on a tangy bed of pickled vegetables, perfumed with bunches of fresh herbs and a sprinkling of crunchy roasted peanuts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant owner -- An article in Wednesday's Food section about Vietnamese restaurants misspelled the name of Hiep Le, the owner of China Beach Bistro, as Heip Le.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 29, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant owner -- In a story in last week's section about Vietnamese restaurants, the name of the owner of China Beach Bistro was misspelled as Heip Le. The correct spelling is Hiep Le.

Around me, everyone is devouring beautifully conceived plates of food: vast bowls of delicate noodles crowned with flowering basil tops and mint or chargrilled meats over hillocks of raw greens. Chef and co-owner Mako Antonishek is clearly cooking what Angelenos want to eat now.

With nearly half a million Vietnamese Americans living in California -- the largest population outside that country itself -- you'd think Vietnamese food would already be as common as tacos. But finding a Vietnamese restaurant meal has usually entailed a trek to Little Saigon or other specific ZIP Codes where restaurateurs survived best by catering to a built-in clientele.

Lately, though, a new generation of Vietnamese entrepreneurs has been changing the landscape. At the new Westside Pho 99 Noodle and Grill, the lure is the room as much as the food. The split-level dining room has a soaring multitiered ceiling, slate-like floors and copper-accented woodwork.

Gingergrass is all high ceilings, white walls and a wide expanse of glass; it has an artist's loft feel that mirrors Silver Lake tastes. At first the restaurant attracted customers who admired Antonishek when she cooked at the short-lived Le Colonial in West Hollywood. But now the place feels Eastside-chic through and through, from the smart-looking crowd to the dramatic cylindrical lamps. Most of Antonishek's dishes are traditional Vietnamese -- shrimp rolled around sugarcane sticks, a sweet-tart jackfruit salad with pickled lotus roots -- and they come artfully arranged on square white ceramic plates.

Puzzling plates

You have to wonder why this cuisine has taken so long to merge into the mainstream. "Too complex to eat," says Kayla Nguyen-Corey, who owns the new Indochine in Pasadena.

Indeed, many diners new to Vietnamese food puzzle over what to do with the rau son -- the plate of herbs, chiles, limes, lettuce and bean sprouts that accompany many dishes. And what are the ubiquitous chile sauce, nuoc mam (fish sauce), hoisin and soy sauce for?

Take the rau son at Indochine, for example. As at all the other new-wave Vietnamese cafes, the herb plate accompanies steamy bowls of pho, the ethereally flavored beef and rice-noodle soup that is always a dual creation between the eater and the chef. On the one hand its deliciousness relies on the broth's light star anise infused flavor, but people personalize their bowls, adding squirts of lime juice and shakes of chile sauce, handfuls of crisp bean sprouts and mint, cilantro and basil (which should be Asian basil, though many restaurants substitute Italian basil), or even raw, sliced jalapenos.

The rau son lends the same dimension to all sorts of dishes, including banh xeo; Indochine serves a splendid rendition. The crisp canary-yellow rice crepe, folded over shrimp, shreds of broiled pork and vegetables looks remarkably like a well-cooked omelet. Some dig in with a fork or chopsticks; others, schooled in the traditions of banh xeo consumption, fold crepe chunks and fresh herbs in lettuce and dip the bundle in the accompanying garlic-infused nuoc cham, the clear sweet-tart sauce that's indispensable at every meal.

At Le Saigon in West Los Angeles, a number of dishes are served with rice paper to wrap them in. When this spot opened five years ago, the menu was limited to pho, rice and noodle plates, and appetizer rolls. Le Saigon's servers patiently tutored a growing clientele, dispensing advice on dealing with the cuisine's unique at-table assembly. They explained how to garnish the pho or wrap deep-fried imperial rolls in swatches of lettuce with a bit of basil. Eventually the owner, Minh Le, found an ingenious way to serve the frustratingly sticky rice paper. For easy separation, she applied a pink plastic divider to each sheet. Now once-timid customers gleefully wrap nem nuong -- sizzling, garlicky pork meatballs -- with fresh greenery in the rice paper.

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