At Louie's of Mar Vista, there's a rare version of a beef noodle soup that originated in New Orleans: yaka mein. All but nonexistent in L.A., it's lovingly known as “Old Sober” to many who have stumbled out of a bar in NOLA's Bywater district after midnight.
The curative bowl often consists of minced beef, spaghetti, chopped scallions and half a hard-boiled egg in soy sauce–accented beef broth, all poured into a Styrofoam cup. Hot sauce, ketchup or more soy sauce is optional. It's a quasi–street/comfort food created by enterprising cooks serving folks who need a fast bite, sometimes served from little else than a pot warming on a Weber grill affixed to a wagon.
Little has been formally documented regarding yaka mein's origins, which in part has led to two conflicting theories. Some believe African-American soldiers returning from the Korean War inspired the dish. There are others, such as Leah Chase, chef at the classic Creole eatery Dookie Chase's Restaurant, who set its creation back farther, to when Chinese laborers arrived in the region and established a bygone Chinatown. It's this more commonly accepted theory that has cast yaka mein as a proxy for Chinese food in local parlance.
Known in African-American households in New Orleans, yaka mein has morphed and shifted over the years into a blend of Creole and modern entrepreneurial traditions. Both recipes and the very name of the dish change from family to family and cook to cook. Some swap spaghetti for egg noodles. Others prefer pork or chicken over beef. Linda Green, otherwise known as the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady, lists duck and alligator among possible proteins. It's recognized as ya ka mein, but it may very well show up as yaka meat or just yock.
Usually the dish takes the form of inexpensive fare you'd find at bars, second lines or nearby bodegas. But even this has started to change over the years. Ralph's on the Park in NOLA makes it with pork belly, shiitake mushrooms and thick, house-rolled pasta. Before it closed in 2014, Sainte Marie was serving a beef noodle yaka mein stocked with shrimp. And in L.A., there's a version at Louie's of Mar Vista.
On Louie's menu, it's listed as “hip tang ya ka mein.” “Hip tang” refers to a bright green onion aji (a peppery green sauce that's usually found in squeeze bottles at Peruvian restaurants) concocted by chef and owner John Atkinson. He got the name from a spicy-citrusy flavor profile that New Orleans musician Dr. John (who's a family friend) described during a hot sauce challenge on an episode of Top Chef New Orleans a few years ago.
The aji sauce is mixed with beef stock, leftover olive oil from a can of marinated artichoke hearts and avocado to form a thick broth. It's then tossed with chewy ramen noodles, pickled green tomatoes, mushrooms, chopped scallions and bits of house-made chicken andouille. Instead of a hard-boiled egg, Atkinson adds one fried over-easy, then garnishes the whole thing with a squirt of pickled Fresno chile sauce reminiscent of Sriracha, which he makes himself.
Atkinson chose a less soup-centric approach that echoes more function than form. “Most of the time, you might get a plastic spoon [to eat yaka mein]. You're slurping it down as you're going home. In New Orleans, it'd be 2 a.m. and you're drinking it for some calories that aren't alcohol. It gives you a chance to sober up.”
The menu at Louie's reads like Atkinson's ode to L.A. by way of Louisiana. He credits his apprenticeship with New Orleans chef Jack Treuting for establishing his know-how with Creole cuisine, though he also learned about Creole culture from his wife, Laura, who grew up in the city. The couple renovated what used to be Atkinson's grandfather's butcher shop in the '50s and '60s and opened Louie's. References to Creole, and at times Cajun, culture get funneled through the family's background as fourth-generation Angelenos who also have ties to Central America. His restaurant's motto is “ASAP” — that is, “as Southern as possible.”
There's a fair amount of good Crescent City food in L.A.: jambalaya and etouffée at Harold & Belle's, giant po'boys at Little Jewel of New Orleans or Orleans & York Deli, even the spicy Viet-Cajun crawfish at Koreatown's the Boiling Crab. But those dishes, while delicious, are as well-known and hyped as Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. If you want to experience a unique slice of New Orleans food culture that's disappearing even in the city where it originated, try Atkinson's interpretation of yaka mein — preferably after a few drinks.
Louie's of Mar Vista, 3817 Grand View Blvd., Mar Vista; (310) 915-5300, louiesofmarvista.com.