Pho the Soul
Photos by Anne Fishbein
The Los Angeles area is rich in restaurants that provide a reasonable facsimile of the Vietnamese restaurant experience, with abundant tripe and long-simmered pho and subtle variations on noodle dishes that eat up seven or eight closely spaced pages of type. Blue Hen, a chicken-happy new café in an Eastside mini-mall, is the other kind of Vietnamese restaurant, washed with sunlight, dotted with art, more attuned to the friendly post-bohemian groove of new-wave Eagle Rock than to the rhythms of Vietnamese culture.
This is what it means to live in Los Angeles circa 2005: The neighborhood hangout just happens to serve pho ga and grilled ginger chicken instead of pancakes and patty melts, Vietnamese fresh-lime sodas instead of 7-Up.
Vietnamese food tends to be low in fat, high in antioxidant vegetables, exotic but accessible, nutritionally correct. If you've spent any time in L.A.'s excellent Vietnamese noodle shops, Blue Hen's tasty but underdeveloped chicken pho, the bland chicken curry and the house version of bun cha gio, a kind of noodle salad with fresh herbs and crunchy imperial rolls stuffed with chicken and various fungi, may leave you yearning for San Gabriel's Golden Deli. Occasionally the table salad will have slightly fewer herbs than it might organic holy basil is not easy to find, I imagine and sometimes you will find the slightly jarring bite of fresh peppermint in a spring roll when you might be expecting something more like opal basil or rau ram.
Organic imaperial rolls
But while you will probably not experience anything akin to culinary epiphany at Blue Hen, it is an unusually pleasant place to linger, listening to old soul tunes on the sound system and jacking yourself up on glasses of super-strong Vietnamese filtered coffee with condensed milk. There are fresh spring rolls to snack on, arranged prettily around geometric smears of sweet bean sauce, and turmeric-garlic fries that turn your fingers yellow as a chain smoker's. Big bowls of chicken porridge seem custom designed to soothe mornings-after, and delicious Vietnamese sandwiches of turmeric-glazed chicken and herbs are a sweet, spicy variant on the banh mi you can get on any corner in Westminster.
The proprietors of Blue Hen, chef-owner Diep Tran and owner Que Dang, who runs the front of the house, come from distinguished careers in social work Dang headed an organization that helped Khmer women refugees adjust to the United States and the restaurant is probably as utopian an enterprise as you will find in a noodle shop. Blue Hen serves no red meat, and most of the produce is organic and locally grown. Tran uses organic chickens, organic soy, organic coffee, organic milk. When you order the fried tofu, which Tran ordinarily moistens with fish sauce, the waitress will ask if you are vegan (which would never happen in beef-happy Little Saigon), and all of the rolls and salads are available with tofu instead of chicken. Blue Hen is an extremely user-friendly cafe.
The other side of the Vietnamese chicken soup experience can be found at Hoan Kiem, a noodle shop in a noodle-intensive mall behind Ocean Seafood in Chinatown, where the art crowd drifts before gallery openings on nearby Chung King Road.
This complex was ground zero for a lot of what we now consider classic Los Angeles cooking. Mandarin Deli started out in this mall, churning out its handmade noodles and potstickers, as did Pho 79, the first serious Vietnamese noodle shop within city limits. Sam Woo began its incursion into the Los Angeles barbecue and Cantonese seafood world here, Ten Ren opened its first Los Angeles tea shop, and Kim Chuy introduced the city to chiu chow noodles.
Hoan Kiem, wedged into a small space near the back of the mall, first gained a small reputation for its banh cuon, a gossamer kind of steamed Vietnamese rice crepe whose picture still decorates the walls. But it seems to have evolved into a one-dish restaurant, and if you are looking for something that doesn't happen to be pho ga, you're probably in the wrong place.
"We only have chicken noodle," the waitress barks. "Chic-ken-noo-dles. Maybe you would like to eat someplace else."
When you order, or rather, nod, the massive bowl of soup is on your table in about 15 seconds yellow and chickeny, seasoned with nothing more elaborate than a sprig or two of cilantro and a handful of chopped scallions, with soft rice noodles cooked about a hundred steps past al dente into near-gelatinousness, soup that makes the meager offerings of delis like Junior's or Nate 'n' Al's seem like so many bouillon cubes dissolved in tepid tap water.
In the end, Hoan Kiem is a better place to eat, but Blue Hen might be a better place to spend an afternoon.
Blue Hen, 1743 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 982-9900, www.eatatbluehen.com. Open Wed. Mon., 11:30 a.m. 9 p.m. Mastercard and Visa accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking. Dinner for two, $15 20, food only.
Hoan Kiem, 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown, (213) 617-3650. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Cash only. No alcohol. Validated lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10.
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