I have two more favorite dishes: Hainanese chicken rice and beef rendang. The two couldn't be more different. The rice, with a chicken thigh and leg perched on top, is a gentle, home-style dish that comforts and soothes with each bite; the flavors are simple and pure. Beef rendang, on the other hand, features intricately spiced, slow-braised beef so tender you could practically eat it with a spoon. It's not shy on firepower either, though the heat smolders and comes on slowly.
The one dish that's something of an acquired taste is otah, finely minced spicy mackerel and coconut, cooked inside a banana leaf wrapper. It's the mushy texture that's off-putting.
At lunch, they make their own shrimp chips (you'll never go back to the packaged ones). Except for the curry fried chicken wings, the menu is mostly Vietnamese-style sandwiches, including one stuffed with Vietnamese ham, paté and headcheese, along with pickles, chiles and housemade garlic mayo. Fried catfish is enticing too, perfectly matched with that smoldering housemade sambal, pickled cucumbers, lime and garlic mayonnaise.
To keep it simple, only two desserts are on the menu. One is a soft-serve ice cream made with Strauss organic cream. I love the slightly bitter taste of the one made with four kinds of black tea. The other choice is a kaffir lime custard with an ethereal texture. Either is a lovely note to sign off on a meal.
It's exciting to see a young chef take on the challenge of creating a contemporary take on the cuisines of Vietnam and Singapore, bringing everything he learned working in high-end kitchens to the task. But the Spice Kitchen works not just because of Ng's technical expertise but because of his emotional connection to the food he grew up with.
The Spice Table
Rating: two stars Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
LOCATION: 114 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 620-1840, http://www.thespicetable.com.
PRICE: Snacks, $6 to $10; satays, $8 to $12; vegetables, $7 to $8; seafood, $12 to $14; meats and poultry, $13 to $16; rice and noodles, $2 to $12; desserts, $5.
DETAILS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and 5:30 p.m. to midnight Thursday to Saturday. Corkage fee, $10. Valet parking, $6.50; with validation, you get $3 back if you stay 1½ hours or less, in adjoining lot. Reservations are taken for dinner only, in person or at its website.