StopBye Cafe has been quietly dishing out fine “Asian Fusion Cuisine” at nearly fast-food prices for the better part of six months now. The Lilliputian space has barely enough room for the open kitchen and maybe five small tables. A few paintings and ceremonial tapestries decorate the white walls.
It's essentially no bigger than your neighborhood Chinese takeout joint. But the food is prepared much more carefully than that. The noodles are made in-house daily and sauced with a demi-glace reduction involving a three-day process of boiling down chicken bones and reducing with brandy. The demi-glace is made with classic French technique but the flavor is entirely Asian.
Justin Tulus cooks his fusion dishes in the small kitchen while co-owner Tom Tee tends to customers. Tulus hails from Indonesia and moved to the United States in 2009 before spending time cooking in restaurants in Taiwan (the popular Southeast Asian mie ayam serves as the inspiration for his distinctive noodle dish) and Australia. In 2012 he worked the line for a year at Spago in Beverly Hills, as well as at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Grove. He also put in some time with visionary chef Sang Yoon at the Asian-inspired Lukshon. But his ultimate dream was to open his own restaurant, with dishes evocative of his travels around the world. Both Tulus and Tee are avid globetrotters and share a mutual love of traveling.
Tulus became fast friends with Tee after they met at a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, where Tee was delivering an educational presentation on Western culture. The two decided to open a simple restaurant together, incorporating Tee's business savvy with Tulus' chef's skills. The gregarious Tee explains each dish in detail to diners and serves as an engaging presence at this homespun cafe.
The eccentric menu does include fast-food favorites such as cheeseburgers and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, but you can sense the pair's passion truly lies in the Asian-inspired plates based on what the menu calls a “spice island” of flavors. “Justin's 18-Spice Chicken” is juicy, brined and seasoned with star anise, garlic, cumin, cinnamon and other spices. It tastes like the love child of Jamaican jerk chicken and Peruvian pollo a la brasa.
Beef rendang, the signature Indonesian stew, redolent of galangal, coconut milk, chile de arbol, garlic and, of course, lemongrass is served here, too, though the usual incendiary kick is toned down a couple notches. (The kitchen also makes a vegetarian, tofu-laden rendang.)
Originally beef rendang was created in the arid, tropical Sumatran Minangkabau section of Indonesia, as a way of preserving meat in the unforgiving climate with the infusion of a cornucopia of spices. Over the years, rendang has served as the centerpiece of celebratory meals at weddings and religious ceremonies. Nowadays it's so common that you can find packaged rendang in convenience stores in Jakarta.
Each dish is served with a daily rotating selection of soups, from coconut corn soup to a visually vibrant sweet pea soup to cream of mushroom. The menu includes freshly fried shrimp tacos, enrobed in a lacy batter, topped with guacamole, cabbage slaw and a sluicing of crema. Forgo the pedestrian fries for StopBye's green salad dressed with an herbal vinaigrette based on parsley, mint, lemon juice and coconut water.
And why the name StopBye Cafe? Tee said they wanted a catchy name for a cafe where you can “stop by … just to say hi.” (And yes, he knows the spelling is, well, nontraditional.) The modest, reasonably priced cafe is located just a few miles from LAX; it might just be the place to stop by if you happen to find yourself in the South Bay when the hankering for noodles or a stew hits.
15333 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale. (424) 456-4564, stopbyecafe.com.