Nong Lá Café, the latest addition to the strip of Sawtelle Boulevard often known as Little Osaka due to its concentration of Japanese eateries, is offering something a bit different than most of its neighbors -- instead of ramen and yakitori, diners will able able to get a taste of Vietnamese specialties like pho tai, cha gio, and thit noung (grilled pork skewers).
Of course, a Vietnamese restaurant opening may not mean as much to those on in the SGV, Chinatown, or down in Westminster's Little Saigon, but for those on the Westside a place without a title involving a number or a soup-based pun (Pho Show, we're looking at you) is something of a godsend. Nong Lá owners Victor and Elaine Phuong are intent on showcasing the family recipes they grew up with in nearby Monterey Park, and based on the amount of interest the sleek and modern space has generated since it's grand opening last week, things are looking up for the brother-sister duo.
You'd be hard-pressed to find bun bo hue, a vibrant Central Vietnamese soup made with lemongrass and chili oil, anywhere remotely nearby, and it even comes stocked with generous slices of fatty brisket and rough hand-shaped pork patties. The flavors are more delicate than at some places on the Eastside -- no cubes of congealed pork blood here -- but the broth still has that complex, long-simmered essence.
There is a solid selection of banh mi too, along with the option to top the sandwich with a fried egg (like that's even choice you have to think about). The cha gio, those crunchy little egg rolls usually stuffed into bowls of mixed-up bun noodles, are probably worth the trip alone: light and crisp and wonderfully plump. The kitchen marinates shrimp overnight and stuffs them, along with bits of ground pork, into thin rice wrappers and fries them to a pleasant crisp. Order a plateful and they'll arrive with sprigs of mint, pickled daikon and carrot, a few lettuce leaves, and a small cup of sweetish nouc mam, a mellow fish-sauce mixture used for dipping.
The house special iced tea, tra da dac biet, made with passionfruit and a dash of mint, is pretty spectacular on a hot day. Will it replace your monthly trips out to Golden Deli? Probably not, but it's comforting to have a good bowl of rice noodles on speed dial.