Saturday, June 12, 2010

Refining Vietnamese Cuisine - Viet Noodle Bar

When updating a cuisine for a new audience, what makes something "mainstream" or "watered-down" (negative), instead of "modern" (positive)? When is a menu "made for foreigners" vs. "made for the locals"? That's one of the challenges a place like Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village faces on a daily basis. Is their version of Bun Ca Thi La (listed as "White Fish Noodles") using delicate filets of White Fish coated in Turmeric and using fresh Dill for the masses? Or is the kitchen refining Vietnamese food for a whole new generation? I believe it's the latter.

Thanks to the inspiring article about Chef-Owner Viet Tran by Thi Nguyen in the L.A. Times, I stopped by Viet Noodle Bar about a year ago and have been going back ever since. :) Viet Noodle Bar sits in a relaxed, easygoing portion of Atwater Village, probably one of the last places you'd expect to find great Vietnamese cuisine.

Once inside, you're greeted by stylish, minimalistic decor, and little modern art touches here and there. The place feels inviting and comfortable the moment you first enter.

Near the front entrance you'll also find various large glass bottles filled with the Organic Soy Beans and other spices used to create Chef Tran's menu.

One of the highlights of Viet Noodle Bar is also the best way to start off a meal here: Organic Soymilk, Original Flavor.

Made from scratch by Chef Tran and his assistants, the Organic Soymilk is an eye-opener to what great Soymilk *should* taste like. It's so pure and clean, with a delicate fragrance from the actual Organic Soy Beans that it originates from. Wonderful! :)

Another great starter is their Jicama Fresh Rolls (Jicama, Carrot, Tofu, Basil, Shallot), served with a Spicy Peanut Sauce.

The Spring Rolls are rolled fresh-to-order, retaining a pleasant elasticity to the thin translucent skin holding together the fresh Carrots and Jicama, along with chunks of Tofu and aromatic Basil. But it's the Fried Shallots that really make these Rolls stand out.

Those lamenting the lack of good Banh Mi (Vietnamese Sandwiches) outside of Little Saigon and the San Gabriel Valley should consider Chef Tran's simply named Fish Sandwich (Dill, Turmeric, Cilantro, Daikon, Carrot, Green Onion).

Yes, it's 200% of the price of most Banh Mi in Little Saigon, but at the same time, what's being made here is beyond the normal offerings found there. Fresh White Fish filets marinated with Turmeric and Dill work beautifully with the bits of Cilantro, Green Onions and Pickled Daikon and Carrots, all placed within a lightly crunchy French Baguette.

Perhaps the most controversial item on their menu is their Pho Ga (Organic Chicken Hanoi's Style Noodle Soup (Cilantro, Red and Green Onions)).

The controversy stems from the price ($9.25) and the taste. In context with the $3.99 price tag found at some eateries in the SGV, the $9.25 price tag seems a bit steep, but it's certainly not the astronomical price of STREET and their $16 bowl of Pho. Beyond the price point, the actual taste seems to have sparked some discussion on the web.

Taking a sip, the Organic Chicken Broth is very light, but it's genuine. It might be a touch too diluted for some people, but its lightness and lack of MSG are things worth celebrating. Far too many Pho restaurants rely on the flavor crystals and have warped the So Cal taste for all things Pho. After being lucky enough to try a homemade version from a friend of a friend's Vietnamese family years ago, I've come to know what a great homemade version should taste like: Clear, bright and nuanced, without being heavily salted and over-MSG-laden like most places locally. Viet Noodle Bar's Pho is close to what you'd find in a home-cooked version, and their Organic Chicken Breast is tender and moist, despite being the leanest part of the Chicken.

The only quibble I have with their Pho is that their Noodles are slightly overcooked, but overall, this has become my favorite version of Pho Ga in So Cal. :)

On another visit, I start with their Freshly-Made Organic Soymilk, Cinnamon Flavor.

The Soymilk is as fresh as always, only slightly sweet, smooth and creamy, with a note of Cinnamon running in the background.

Listed simply as Crepe (Rice Flour, Shrimp, Green Beans) on the menu, this dish turns out to be Chef Tran's interpretation of the traditional Banh Xeo.

Chef Tran's version uses a hard, crispy, crackly Rice and Egg Shell to house the Shrimp and Mung Bean Sprouts. It's extremely bland by itself, but when gussied up with the fresh Romaine Lettuce, bits of fresh Mint Leaves and a touch of the Spicy Peanut Sauce, the taste becomes infinitely more palatable. :) Overall it's probably something I wouldn't order again, but I can see its appeal.

I'm always on the lookout for healthier alternatives to certain dishes (and to help scout for my Vegetarian friends :), so I can't wait to try their Vegetarian Lemongrass Pho (Soyskin and Shiitake Mushrooms).

While Viet Noodle Bar claims to make their Vegetarian Broth from scratch (using Sesame Oil, Lemongrass and Mung Beans, amongst other ingredients), it tastes really straightforward and one-note. It lacks any Lemongrass flavors (which is really disappointing), and it tastes like the Vegetarian Broth found at Whole Foods.

The Soyskin has a nice texture and gives a satisfying meaty chew to each bite. The combination of White Button Mushrooms and Shiitake help add some deliciousness to the otherwise bland Soup. The Noodles are extremely overcooked on this visit, with some of the Noodles still clumped together (and soggy).

But a real surprise turns out to be their Chicken with Turmeric Rice (Cilantro, Red Onion, Lime Juice).

The Turmeric Rice is beautifully colored, topped with clean, fresh-tasting chunks of Chicken Breast meat mixed with Red Onions and floral Cilantro. The Fried Shallots really add a textural crunch and little flavor explosions with each bite. It's a relatively light, simple Rice dish just by itself.

But pour a bit of the Fish Sauce and Sriracha mixture over the Rice and it completely transforms the dish without overpowering it. Despite using undiluted, concentrated Fish Sauce and a good amount of Sriracha, the potent pungent liquid manages to lift up and accentuate the tender, moist chunks of Chicken and the flavors of the Turmeric Rice. Delicious! :)

My latest visit begins with a glass of their Freshly-Made Organic Soymilk, Black Sesame Flavor.

While the Organic Soymilk is refreshing as expected, the inclusion of chunks of roasted Black Sesame (unsweetened), gives the whole beverage a very deep, slightly bitter, soil and nutty quality. It's a hard, unfettered examination into Black Sesame without the sugar usually associated with it. It's quite enjoyable, but may not be for everyone. :)

We start with their Fried Shrimp Rolls.

The crispy Egg Roll Skins taste like they're fried in clean oil, imparting a satisfying fresh shattering crunch with each bite, and the Shrimp itself tastes fine. But when rolled with the cool Romaine Lettuce and a bit of Mint, dipped in their Fish Sauce, it hearkens back to classic flavors, just slightly more refined.

My guest orders their Lemongrass Organic Chicken Banh Mi (Cilantro, Daikon, Carrot, Green Onions).

Unlike their wonderful Dill Turmeric White Fish Sandwich, the Organic Shredded Chicken tastes old and a bit too mushy. It's well-seasoned, with some Lemongrass and herbal notes, but the state of the Chicken brings down the whole experience.

But Chef Tran's Turmeric Fish Noodles (Dill, Turmeric, White Fish) quickly turns things around.

This dish may seem strange for those not used to Vietnamese Dry Noodle dishes. Instead of the Noodles sitting in a Soup or covered in a Sauce, they are served plain, topped with various meats and vegetables (if you need a bit more liquid / moisture, feel free to use the Fish Sauce).

Chunks of White Fish marinated with Turmeric and Dill are served with Cilantro and Fried Shallots atop a mass of medium-thick Rice Noodles. While the Fish is a touch on the saltier side, it's perfect when paired with a bit of the Dry Noodles to balance things out.

Service is the one big negative for the restaurant. It's not that the servers have been rude or anything of that nature, but it's that they've been consistently slow and unattentive over the past year's worth of visits. You sometimes don't see or hear from a server for the entire meal, and sometimes you have to just get up and go to the cash register to get the check and/or get the attention of someone in the back. Prices range from $5 - $9.25, with their Organic Soymilk running $3 a glass. We averaged about ~$17 per person (including tax and tip).

Whether it's using Organic Chicken, creating healthier Banh Mi alternatives like their Vegan Tofu Basil Sandwich, or crafting inventive, delicious made-from-scratch, Organic Soymilk flavors, Viet Noodle Bar is an enjoyable little outpost to Vietnamese cooking, but updated and modernized, and a worthwhile stop if you're in the neighborhood. While the creations don't always work (like their super-hard Crepe), most of the dishes are healthier, lighter interpretations of traditional Vietnamese classics. Those that enjoy MSG and/or heavier, bolder flavors may want to stay clear of Viet Noodle Bar, but I'm thankful for a place where I can pop in and enjoy some outstanding freshly-made Organic Soymilk, their pure, fresh Pho Ga, or an interesting, lighter version of another Vietnamese Rice or Noodle dish. :)

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

Viet Noodle Bar
(Atwater Village)
3133 Glendale Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Tel: (323) 906-1575

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
(Note: Their website is currently down.)


Darin said...

Wow - this definitely looks like a place to try. I've never actually stumbled across fresh homemade soymilk, and I'm really intrigued to try that! While their pho does seem relatively expensive, it's nice to see an actual gourmet vegetarian version.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Darin,

Their Homemade Organic Soymilk is definitely worth a try. Let me know what you think of it. :)

stuffycheaks said...

wow, id go just for that soy and black sesame. sounds so interesting. Do you know if their banh mis have pate in them cuz thats the best part of it :)

Gastronomer said...

This review is very timely because I just visited VNB for the first time two weeks ago. I ordered the white fish with dill and thought it was good, but not great. It lacked the oily onion-y goodness that the versions in Hanoi boast. I loved the vibe though!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi stuffycheaks,

Their Homemade Soymilk is definitely a nice highlight. :)

Their Banh Mi does not have Pate unfortunately. :) (I know, I love that aspect as well. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

Thanks for your thoughts. It's good to hear how it compares to creations in Hanoi. :)

Jessica said...

Your descriptions, as well as your beautiful photography, leave me hungry for more! Great post.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Jessica,

Thanks. :) I hope you get a chance to try this restaurant sometime.

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