It was a Saturday afternoon after a morning of Pilates followed by procrastination, and I was in need of a snack. I craved the sort of snack that could double as a quick, reasonably priced lunch. As with most things, however, you risk quality in favor of expediency and price.
These days, it’s not exactly hard to find a pop-up around town. So when on the look out for one, unique themes and meal times will catch my eye more than others. Good thing Chef Connie Tran is launching her centrally located Sunday Vietnamese brunch pop-up on Melrose.
It’s a refreshing survey of her style of Vietnamese dishes. Because sometimes, you just want to go beyond a bowl of pho, and for multiple courses. And the option to BYOB is always a great way to go.
It’s curious that Pingtung is called an “Eat-in Market,” the “market” designation perhaps being a way of propping up the Asian goods that lie on overhead (to me) shelves along the sides of the deep-drawn cafe. Though I have a few guilty snack pleasures such as Yan Yan, Shrimp Chips, that clear, Japanese soda with the swingy little ball, Calpico and the like, I’d make the trek to 99 Ranch, Mitsuwa or Zion if I wanted to go Asian grocery shopping. (I’m trying to cut down on the snacks, much less MSG-laden ones, anyway.)
As Fiona and I finished our small plates and resumed breathing – but realized we were breathing fire – we weren’t quite sure, exactly, where we were, anymore. We cajoled, “Is this restaurant called, ‘The Spicy Table’?”
The Little Tokyo spot has a shrewdly stylish, if still minimal, ambiance with bird cage accents surrounding light bulbs incandescent. The front bar area seems like the perfect place at which to perch around the central wood-fired oven and enjoy a dish or two with the desired size pour of beer or glass of wine. I did wonder if the faces of those who sat at the bar, directly in front of the oven, were burning off or not (I caught a good amount of heat simply from walking by); then again, Downtown LA benefits from any spot proffering warmth to their customers, no matter how literal. Just choose your proximity, I guess, and they’ll just make sure to leave some brick exposedÂ so you’re reminded that you’re downtown and cozy.
Though cost and variety was the reason were the reasons I chose suds (4 oz. beer pours are available for $2; glasses of wine are upwards of $14), light, cold and carbonated was, in retrospect, the perfect thing to wash down all those bold flavors. My Craftsman Hef was a great choice, and you’ll be glad to know that The Bruery’s Orchard White, Abita’s Amber Lager and North Coast’s La Merle Saison – and, true-to-form, the Singaporean Tiger Beer – are all available in 12- and 16-oz. pours as well.
The starting lamb belly skewersÂ ($10), or satay, were singed perfectly while revealing fully flavorful, slightly gelatinousÂ centers. The piquant yet indulgent spread in the Black Pepper Crab Toast didn’t have me thinking that one piece of bread between the two of us wasn’t enough; I simply piled that crab paste onto my toasted triangle about an inch thick.
We were almost to theÂ noodles, by then, but not before the squidÂ special came out. And though we sat in the dining room, this was where I fully appreciated that oven situated behind the bar. The deliciously charred, squid shell was not rubbery but as tender as its sticky rice center, with bits of familiarly rich Chinese sausage and just-as-meaty black mushrooms filling out the tubular vessels. The vinaigrette we spooned on top added the bitter-sweet note we didn’t even know was missing. You may end up wishing that this was a regular menu item.
But then came our fiery hot noodles. The first, the Kon Loh Mee, featured springy, thin egg noodles topped with ground pork, char siu (because one kind of pork is never enough), sambal and choy sum – the lattest of which were, I realized later, the only vegetables short of the garnishes we had consumed the entire night. The egg noodles were superbly cooked; I’m wondering if they were made in-house and regret that I didn’t ask. The entire dish, however, were some of the most punishingly delicious dry noodles I’ve had in some time.
The Laksa, a coconut curry broth enveloping rice flour noodles, mussels and fish cakes and topped with coriander and a slice of soft-boiled egg, was almost as punishing. The creaminess of the coconut recanted some of that direct sting. It was enough of a break to entice us to press on, breathing in and out, while admiring that the restaurant didn’t pull any punches for The Stereotypicallly WeakÂ White Man’s Palate. (Or, gave our Stereotypically Tough AsianÂ Woman’s PalatesÂ their fair treatment – either way.) It even came with a hefty portion of sambal, which is allegedly traditional but something we had no intention of actually adding! The soup was thankfully delicious as it stood. I loved all the textures of the rice noodles and fish cakes while the mussels – let’s face it, I love shellfish – were that extra kick in the flavor pants.
If they brought out the spicy dishes last for a reason, I have an inkling on what that reason is: Dessert.
It worked. Well done. (Okay, and, there’s always a valid argument for palate fatigue, right? Anyway.)
Our Kaffir Lime Custard wasÂ a refreshing, fluffyÂ yet tart reprieve. The perfect, thematicÂ ending to an adventurous meal by a former Mozza chef featuring Vietnamese and Singaporean flavors in a Japanese district calledÂ Little TokyoÂ in DowntownÂ Los Angeles. That is all.
Pop-ups are all the rage, lately, especially in Los Angeles. Test Kitchen, however, brings that concept to another, oxymoronic level in that it is a “permanent” pop-up, of sorts. Yes, Test Kitchen serves exactly the purpose of how it sounds in the first place, and is indicative of a food culture and city in which it is normal for talented and even famous chefs to be homeless. Test Kitchen is the couch they squat, and Jordan Kahn’s, Noah Ellis’ and Adam Fleischman’s (Umami Burger) new Vietnamese outfit to open in the fall on Wilshire, Red Medicine, was the first to do so in a fully booked 5-day run ending last Sunday.
Luckily, Mattatouille let me crash his 2-top reservation that day, and as to be expected there were tons of industry and bloggy types to brush shoulders against. In my lone experience during Jordan’s run, I could see hardly any drawbacks to the system. The pacing in all 12 courses was expedient (yes, there were 12) and the prix fixe pricing was dirt cheap at $40. The dishes that were hits really went out of the park; the dishes that were misses for me were arguable and interesting conversation pieces with others in attendance. One thing’s for sure, though: Jordan’s imagination was ever apparent in every course and kept all diners sitting at the edge of their chairs.
Favorites included the pork belly tartine – it was paired perfectly with pickled carrots and coriander, given weight by the pate and finished with the perfect kick at the end thanks to the back-burning green chili. I enjoyed it in a single bite yet savored it for minutes thereafter. Another grand slam was the Cured Amberjack, balanced atop sous vide french melon and topped with lime leaf, nuoc cham, bird chili and mint. It was an amazingly refreshing yet complex dish that really complemented the fish.
One of my other favorites was the tomatoes, which were a delicious example in sustainable cooking and farming, having been marinated in an infusion of their vines. The unmistakeable tomato flavor was paired up with silky and crunchy tofu – a refreshing departure from mozzarella and creme fraiche. The silken tofu had nuances of a creamier food thanks to the vine infusion oil but when I realized I wished there were more on the plate it was clear how light the dish was. Leafy greens and purple basil gave it good aroma, green color and foliage.
One of the dishes that I enjoyed but Mattatouille happened to disagree with was the bay scallops, dressed with young ginger, tamarind syrup, puffed tapioca and charred frisee. It was my first time experiencing frisee served that way and this provided much of the flavor – a nice twist on a green that has normally been regarded as a garnish. The puffed tapioca was a nice spin on hominy, making the intermixed bay scallops (read: small) somewhat an ingredient in a seafood salad. It challenged how I indiscriminately favored big juicy scallop steaks up until this point. Touche.
The baby carrots were a nice, firm yet sweet texture underneath the also sweet fermented black bean – my favorite sweet-savory dish on the menu in contrast to the brussels sprouts (carmelized shallots, fish sauce, prawn crackers), which I didn’t think quite worked but others had actually liked. The anise on the baby carrots as well as the coconut and tarragon really kept things aromatic and interesting.
About a month ago, a big cafe with a big patio – thankfully with the charm to match – opened for business behind MTV Networks in Santa Monica. And this past weekend, the An group (The Crustacean) opened up their garden cafe for service on Saturdays and Sundays to feature a brand new brunch menu.
In the past month, it’s become a favorite forÂ weekday breakfast, brunch, lunchÂ (including grab-and-go) and Thursday/Friday happy hour. But now non-Santa Monica professionals (and non-professionals, at that) can enjoy weekend brunch on the window-adorned, dark brickedÂ patio. Heidi Montag, her handlers, my friend Jim from Vegas and I were all there to check it out. (And for once, the cameras on-site were taking pictures of food, not Heidi.) Inside you’ll find a cool dining area with modern, wooden-metal chairs designed by Catherine An, herself.
For $28, guests get three courses byÂ choosing from an array of starters, main entrees and dessert. I loved the brand new Chilled White Corn Bisque with Creme Fraiche – so refreshing yet creamy at the same time. The Cured Salmon Carpaccio was dressed with Fried Capers, Horseradish Creme Fraiche and Tiato straight from their potted herbs right on the patio.Â In fact, the huge patio is surrounded by planted herbs from which Chef Helene An emerges from the kitchen to pick from, for the menu.
The house-baked ham in the Green Eggs and Ham Benedict had perfect flavor while the Grass Fed Burger really held its own, complete with brioche bun and a fried egg topping the patty. If you need your fix of eggs, Tiato’s got you covered – as I realized later the dishes we gravitated towards just happened to include them in the recipes.
Also, if you’re jonesin’ for some cosmopolitan Vietnamese dishes, Catherine An has put Pho, Traditional Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad and evenÂ Banh Mi on the menu. I have yet to try those, but will certainly take an opportunity the next time I’m on the westside. Soon, thanks to many customers’ requests, Tiato will bring over The Crustacean’s famous garlic noodles so those who aren’t right by the oceanfront will have easier and more casual access to those addictive tendrils.
While you’re there, don’t miss the garden market inside. You’ll find random Asian snacks – fresh (Wasabi Peas, Sesame Sticks, Smoked Almonds, Veggie Sticks, Berry Nutty trail mix)Â and packaged (Yan Yan, jellies, and more) – nuts, fruits, and other fixins. They’re all free for the sampling, so you can browse to your delight. Soon, they’ll be bringing farmers in themselves to sell their prized goods as a push to create their own farmer’s market space. Combined with their herb garden, Tiato doesn’t get any more local than that.
Mon – Fri: Breakfast 8 – 10:30 AM Lunch 11 AM – 3 PM
Thur – Fri: Happy Hour 4 – 8 PM
Sat – Sun: Brunch 10 AM – 3 PM
Tiato Market Garden Cafe 2700 Colorado Ave. Santa Monica, CA 90404 310.866.5228