A Love Ode To Viet Noodle and Viet Soy - the best Vietnamese food in Los Angeles
- Thi N. Oct 21, 2008 12:28 PM
Alright - it's time. I've been going to Viet's restaurants - first the teeny Viet Soy Cafe, and now the newer, bigger, and better Viet Noodle Bar - for about a year and a half now. They've been my serious favorite joints for a while now.
DISCLAIMER: I interviewed Viet Tran, the chef/owner, for my article in the LA Times about him, the Scoops Ice Cream dude, and Olimpus. So he knows me now. But I picked all the folks for the interview because I was a long time customer, fan, insane devotee, etc. etc. - and I was all secret and anonymous and stuff for the first year and a half I ate there. My opinion - and devotion - was formed well before he knew who I was.
Viet Noodle Bar (where Viet, and thus where the action, is most of the time) is one of my favorite restaurants around, and certainly the only good Vietnamese food I've found in Los Angeles proper. I typically go down to Little Saigon with some frequency, to get in touch with my ethnic roots and all that. Thus far, Vietnamese food in Los Angeles, including Chinatown, can't hold a *candle* to the stuff in Little Saigon. (San Gabriel stuff can come close, but mostly, the true glory is in Little Saigon.) The stuff in Los Angeles: either flavorless and watered down, or listless, or Korean-ized, which means lots of heavy spicing and masking flavors and not much in the way of pure, clean flavor. I've tried and tried and been disappointed, until the first time, walking down the street, I got a whiff of Viet's place.
First thing: Viet makes soy milk from organic soy beans almost every morning. It's insanely fresh. It's nothing like any other soy milk I've tasted. Most soy milk in America: terrible, noxious, bitter tastes. Fresh soy milk from a few vendors: quite good. I used to drive down to Little Saigon, to that soy milk-tofu factory storefront right by the big Three Buddhas mall, just for a mouthful of good fresh soy. Viet is above them all. This is soy milk of love, soy milk of mastery, soy milk of wonder. He has it straight. He has it infused with Vietnamese cinnamon. He has it infused with yerba mate. He uses it to make the best cafe sua da (Viet coffee with sweetened milk) I've ever had. He uses it to make the most tender, soft, cloud-like tofu pudding in ginger syrup I've ever had.
He makes chicken pho which is one of the two best pho's I've had in SoCal. (The other is Pho Minh, in El Monte. Strangely, pho is the one department where immediate LA area now beats Little Saigon - though only at the tippy top exemplars, not in average.) It is totally, completely, terrifyingly pure. It is northern style. Which means: no herb platter, no sprouts. Just a pure confrontation with absolute purest chicken. This is a chicken experience on par with, say, halibut sashimi - delicate, gorgeous, the subtlest possible meat-sweet.
Noodles are... perfect. Kind of that delicate, gossamar mouthfeel. Most other pho shops, even in LIttle Saigon, seem to use dried pho noodles. These are really, really, *really* fresh. They have that suppleness... that sort of near-dissolving slippery half-velvetyness... hard to describe. Wonderful noodles. Again, the only place that compares is Pho Minh.
Other good stuff: vegetarian shiitake pho (totally his invention, but very Vietnamese), jackfruit shiitake salad, anything with soy-skin (little gloriously chewy rolls of fresh soy-skin). Banh mi sandwiches are really good.
The aesthetic is: super-clean, super-pure, ingredient-forward, pure, delicate. Not a place with lots of heavy spicing. High in balance and purity, low in complex, obvious seasoning. If you like pho for loads of cinnamon, clove, etc. flavor, you'll be disappointed. This is chicken nectar. It's best to close your eyes and sort of sup lightly and *concentrate*.
This place restores my soul when I'm sad.
Anyway, in the interview, I found out a bunch of things: Viet used to be a computer programmer, Viet had some sort of soul-changing experience, Viet wandered around Northern Vietnam and stayed at little villages where they only made one thing and were secret about the recipe, and Viet learned pho and noodle technique there. Viet also thinks that making soy milk is a form of zen meditation, and he wants to *go into women's prison's and teach them to make soy* because it's a calming experience, and because soy is good for women. (That last factoid was cut from my article. The editor thought it was irrelevant. Can you believe that? I can't think of anything more relevant. Teaching soy milk making in a women's prison. That's the most relevant thing, like, ever.) He exudes zen-chill. He may be the single chillest person I've ever met. A bunch of girls I took there afterwards declared him to be "the most lickable man in Los Angeles." He likes to chat. Back in the days when he ran the teeny Viet Soy bar, which had about 7 seats, he would talk to everybody, serve everybody, chat 'em up, give 'em samples. Viet Noodle Bar is larger, but he's still there most of the time, and still chats people up.
He's also opening a soy milk tasting bar in the new annex to Viet Noodle. Last time I was there, the bar was open, but unattended. His regular restaurant has some pretty insane flavors: yerba mate soy milk, black sesame soy milk. They're pretty perfect. The bar, he told me in the interview, is for his insaner side. Last time I was there (post-interview), he told me he had some new flavors - raw organic garlic soy milk, turmeric soy milk. I tried. They are... shocking. *Bizarre*. Great. The garlic soy milk has this long, strangely sweet aftertaste. It's also a kick in the head. He mixed it with a little cinnamon soy milk, which is perfect. He complained that nobody's ordered the garlic soy milk. I said, "Uh, it's not on your menu. How are they supposed to know about it?" Viet shrugged.
He's that kind of guy.
re: Thi N.
I asked for a cafe sua da. they asked me one or two shots
I was immediately perplexed, but asked for a doubleshot.
3 dollars and 2 minutes later, I had an empty 6oz solo cup and a terrible desire to burn the place down.
didn't taste like any cafe sua da I ever had, and wouldn't want to drink it again either (esp. at 3 bucks for < 6oz! WITH ICE!~
Totally weird. I've never been asked about the number of shots on a cafe sua da. Also, I think I've only ordered the soy-milk version. Well - if you go and have the pho and soy milk, and I win any degree of your trust over this, maybe someday, in the far future, you'll try his cafe sua da with soy milk and tell me what you think.
re: Thi N.
Boy, I thought Viet Noodle Bar was terrible. Went there with a group of people and nobody was impressed. It maybe the best VN food in LA proper, but that is because the bar is set so low. I really wanted to like it, but it didn't measure up on quality and flavor.
If I lived in Atwater, I'd get on the freeway and head over to the SGV.
My wife did like the Soy Milk, but I wouldn't go to a restaurant just for the Soy Milk.
I will agree with you about Pho Minh, that place is good. There are so many other places in LA and OC that are better than Viet Noodle Bar, I can't imagine going back there.
Thanks for the great report and follow-up. Read about Viet from your original article and was intrigued. :)
Based on a few mixed reactions so far in this thread, I'd definitely want to go with Viet is there himself (just to make sure I get his Zen Chill supervision on my order :). Do you know which days he's at Viet Noodle Bar or at his other 2 places?
he's there almost all the time. There's some variability (I think they're adjusting a little bit every day to freshness of ingredients - it's not a fixed recipe on the pho) - but it doesn't change that much. Sundays the soy milk is sometimes a bit old... maybe he doesn't make soy on the weekends.
My experience, though, is that it's not that the *place* is variable - it's that there are very highly variable reactions to the place, depending on taste. Watching/listening on the boards, it seems to be about 50/50 split - some hate it, some love it. People who love it, love it consistently, and those who hate it, hate it consistently. Most of my friends who I take there love it in a very intense way - like, "this is one of the best places I've ever been oh dear God" passionate kind of love. And the love it consistently. Though many of them have tastes similar to mine.
There's a definite class of restaurant/food that Viet Noodle fits into, and it always gets mixed reviews. I found the same response to one of my other passionate favorites: Otafuku's soba. Half the people seem to become instant converts, the other half find it boring, empty, and overhyped. Both are on the ultra-pure, ultra-quiet, purified flavor tip.
It's also unlike most over Viet restaurant cuisine. I'd almost call it non-traditional (and I sort of did, in the article) - except that I've tasted things very like it before, in some Viet home kitchens. So I dunno.
So: flavor range is like zaru soba (or more particularly, sarashina), white tea, halibut sashimi, Din Tai Fung's undoctored double-steamed chicken soup.
You should do a two-fer of Pho Minh and this place - they're like opposites within the world of pho.
I believe Soy Cafe is closed or will be closing. That leaves only the Noodle Bar & Banh Mi place next door, really one location since it is joined.
What you (Thi) say about Viet is the God's honest truth. His food is rediculously good. The Bun Chay (mushroom, soy skin) and Bun Ca Thi La (whitefish) may be my 2 favorite dishes in LA right now. It's hard to choose when I go. I live 3 blks away and I need to remind myself not to eat there too often lest I od on the stuff.
"The aesthetic is: super-clean, super-pure, ingredient-forward, pure, delicate. Not a place with lots of heavy spicing. High in balance and purity, low in complex, obvious seasoning. If you like pho for loads of cinnamon, clove, etc. flavor, you'll be disappointed. This is chicken nectar. It's best to close your eyes and sort of sup lightly and *concentrate*."
That's pretty much how I found it.
They ran out of banh pho, so I had to get some other chicken noodle dish. Also got some banh xeo tom. The noodle dish was pretty good, I described it as "light but hearty" due to the complex subtleties of the broth.
Banh xeo had good crunch and a tasty batter, but was completely lacking in the filling department. No nuoc mam (sp?) = lose as well (especially since the gf is allergic to peanuts)
The soy milk was excellent, but the biggest winner of the night is that bean curd tofu dessert thing. Jesus christ, it's pretty much worth the trip alone.
That said, 27 bucks for 2 people and we were still hungry afterwards is no fun