While purists might think that the recipes of Vietnamese dishes shouldn't be tampered with, several L.A. chefs are putting their own creative twists on the classic pho and bánh mì—and they're doing a good job at it. From a deconstructed bánh mì salad to a pho sandwich that you dunk in broth like a French dip, here are some restaurants in L.A. where you can get fun and flavorful spins on your favorite comfort cuisine — without having to trek to the San Gabriel Valley.
Simbal chef and owner Shawn Pham has crafted a deconstructed bánh mì salad that almost tastes like you're eating a regular ol' sandwich. True to the classic fillings, there are slices of Vietnamese pork roll (aka cha lua) and head cheese cold cuts, pickled daikon and carrot, chunks of cucumber, slices of jalapeño and sprigs of cilantro. Even the creamy white sauce that lightly dresses the salad is reminiscent of the glorious mayo spread that oozes out of the sandwiches you'll find in the 626, but this sauce boasts the addition of fish sauce — giving it that umami oomph — plus a bit of chili paste for a kick. But what makes this dish different is that, instead of a massive French bread roll cradling the ingredients, the bread is cubed and deep-fried as buttery croutons. And what's a bánh mì without pâté? This dish has that, too. Pham wanted to do something different than just smear it onto the plate, though: He batters it and deep-fries it to create little pâté balls. Pham's inspiration for this dish came from looking through an Italian cookbook, wanting to do a spin on a panzanella (Italian bread salad). Pham, an Orange County native, worked at high-end restaurants like The Bazaar and Craft and spent four years living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, before starting Simbal. 319 E. Second St., Ste. 202, Little Tokyo; (213) 626-0244, simbalrestaurant.com.
East Borough has the ultimate mashup of two Vietnamese favorites: a pho bánh mì that you eat like a French dip. Simply dubbed the “Pho baguette,” chef Chloe Tran's creation is a 12-inch French bread roll stuffed with slices of slow-cooked beef brisket, raw onion, bean sprouts, Fresno chili, leafy Thai basil and a drizzle of a hoisin-Sriracha aioli. You take that bad boy and dip it in a bowl of pho broth, and let the bread sop up all the soupy goodness. If you think it's a fusion dish, think again. Co-owner John Cao says they “despise the word 'fusion.'” They like to think of their dishes as a modern take on traditional Vietnamese flavors. Cao refers to his restaurant's slogan to describe their cuisine: “Traditional by no means. Authentic by all means.” 9810 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 596-8266, east-borough.com.
O.G. food truck Komodo has grown up over the years, expanding from slinging on the streets to opening two brick-and-mortar locations. Chef and co-owner Erwin Tjahyadi's particular brand of Asian fusion is still very present, and one of his more recent creations, bánh mì chicken, comes in two different forms: in a taco or burrito. It's marinated chicken with pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro and jalapeño, with an added hoisin aioli and crushed peanuts. Co-owner Thomas Choi says they hold their bánh mì to a high standard, and are inspired by the famed SGV Bánh Mì My-Tho's sandwiches. If you're lucky, they might bring back their Phorrito (a pho burrito minus the broth) at the end of this year or early 2017 for a limited run. 8809 W. Pico Blvd., Pico-Robertson; (310) 246-5153; and 235 Main St., Venice; (310) 255-6742; komodofood.com.
Ox & Son
Ox & Son's deconstructed bánh mì breakfast bowl has a lot going on. It's an amalgamation of Southeast Asian flavors, beautiful plated with bursts of color coming from the vibrant red and orange pickled vegetables, bright green cilantro, jalapeños and cucumber slices. Forget about French bread — that's out of the equation (which we'll let slide for this case even though “bánh” means bread). Instead what you'll find at the bottom of the bowl is coconut sticky black rice. Also mixed in is pork breakfast sausage and two poached eggs, which give heft to the bowl once you give it a good stir. Chef de cuisine Gabriel Hatton, who developed the recipe along with executive chef Brad Miller, says the key to the breakfast bowl is in the special chili-lime sauce they put on everything. The sauce was originally developed for a chili crab dish that they didn't end up doing, but thankfully they saved the sauce. 1534 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 829-3990, oxandson.com.
TJ's Tacos L.A.
TJ's tacos is a rare treat that you can get only twice a month, for the most part. If we had it our way, they'd be available 24/7. Aside from pop-ups here and there, TJ's is faithfully stationed in Lock & Key's back patio every second and fourth Tuesday of the month, from 8 to 11:30 p.m. T.J. Huynh, who grew up in a Vietnamese-Filipino household, has put to good use what he learned from watching his parents and grandparents cook in the kitchen. At Lock & Key, he usually offers a variety of three tacos for $3 apiece, each served on simple paper plates. Each of Huynh's tacos has a different combination of toppings: The marinated beef comes with cilantro, onion salsa and a creamy hot sauce; the marinated chicken is accompanied by cucumber, pickled vegetables, shiso leaf and an Asian BBQ sauce; and the shrimp is sautéed in butter and topped with lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, mint and an anchovy-pineapple sauce. While you're there, you can wash that all down with a nice craft cocktail from Lock & Key. Follow TJ's Tacos' Instagram to see where you can find them next. 239 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown; instagram.com/tjstacosla.