On a recent Wednesday night in Echo Park, sun-glazed party people smoked American Spirits outside of El Prado while an herbal-cloud crowd gathered for Dub Club at the Echoplex. Families with small children holding soccer balls strolled toward the park and a street vendor pushed a shopping cart full of boiled corn past gangly twentysomethings skulking in and out of Origami Vinyl, heading to Two Boots for a slice of Earth Mother pizza or down the street to Mooi for a chilly scoop of raw-vegan ice cream.
New to this local scene is a restaurant called Xoia Vietnamese Eats. Owned by husband and wife Jose Sarinana (who is Mexican) and Thien Ho (who is Vietnamese), Xoia comes at the right moment to perfectly embody the swiftly changing face of a neighborhood that is for the moment balanced in a mixed and vibrant spot between its working-class ethnic past and a gentrified future.
Xoia is in the old Par paint space across from Masa. It has a crisp, deeply urban feel not yet found in the neighborhood's other restaurants. That may be because its large, enclosed, sidewalk-facing patio caters to the pedestrian culture that has sprung up along that stretch of Sunset in response to its increasingly popular bars, restaurants and shops.
It may also be because the menu is simple (pho, banh mi, spring rolls), the price point modest (most dishes are $8.25 and under) and the cuisine under-represented in the area.
Then there is the story of the owners, who met and fell in love at Belmont High School and are now raising their two children in Echo Park. Sarinana, 34, came to a culinary career later in life. It wasn't until he was living in Maine six years ago for an artists residency that he realized how much he enjoyed cooking.
When he and his fellow artists grew tired of the limited food offerings on campus, he began cooking tacos in a grill he made out of a wheelbarrow to circumvent a no-open-fires rule. "It turned out I enjoyed sharing food with people more than I enjoyed sharing art — it's just more direct," Sarinana said.
When he and Ho decided to open a restaurant, they spent several months in Vietnam, specifically Ho's hometown, Hoi An, a historic harbor town in central Vietnam that has food that Sarinana describes as "a lot more rustic than what you find in Saigon."
The result of their research includes a meaty steak pho in a midnight-brown broth with a whisper of sweetness; a tender pork banh mi stuffed with fresh cilantro, slender tongues of crisp cucumber and thick, searingly hot slices of jalapeño pepper; and an unusual Hoi An specialty called Mi Quang, made with fat yellow rice noodles, sprigs of mint, and chunks of shrimp and pork bathed in a rich pork broth and garnished with sesame crackers.
Of particular note are the pho beef tacos (which should be named phacos!). They are made using meat boiled down to make pho stock. After it's cooked for hours with bones and spices, it is chopped, fried, put on lightly grilled corn tortillas and sprinkled with cilantro, red onion, cinnamon and anise. The meat is a pillow-soft mush of sweet, spicy and savory and literally dribbles broth.
If phacos catch on they could easily become one of Echo Park's signature neighborhood foods. And it's a rare restaurant that can put Tacos Ariza and Pho Café on notice.
Xoia Vietnamese Eats
Where: 1801 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park
When: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays through July 11; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays beginning July 13
Price: Pho, banh mi and appetizers, $5.25 to $9.25
Contact: (213) 413-3232; www.xoiaeats.com