A Super Early Look at the Food of NongLA Vietnamese Cafe
Coming to the realization that there is and will never be decent Vietnamese food without traveling to Westminster or SGV is an exercise that can bear some resemblance to the 7 stages of grief. ”There must be some place that does it well?” “This place really doesn’t do it well.” ”Why the fuck can’t they do it well!?” “This is never going to happen, is it? Time to get in the car and spend more on gas than I will on the banh mi I’m going to order when I get to where I’m going.” The problem is I only ever make it to stage 4. It makes sense that there is no decent Chinese food on the west side, after all it’s tough to wean a person off of chicken lo mein and beef with broccoli. (I should know, even though I love the SGV I’m not completely cured of my General Tso’s addiction.) But Vietnamese food? That seems tailor made for chicken loving, health food eating Angelenos. Pho is like a less fatty version of ramen, right? Bun is just a glorified salad, with grilled meats. And banh mi. Who doesn’t like banh mi?
And yet most of the Vietnamese places in L.A. proper and parts west give the distinct impression that the owners spent more time thinking of stupid restaurant names than they did on the menu. So when I heard that NongLA was opening on Sawtelle, I had mixed emotions. Could this be the upward turn that leads us to the promise land?
After a few friends and family meals, Nongla officially opened to the public on Sunday. The menu and decor looks like it could have easily been lifted from a “modern” Vietnamese restaurant in Beverly Hills or even Silverlake but the menu has some things to get excited about (bun bo hue anybody?!) It would be silly to pass overly critical judgement on the food so early, but here’s a quick look at most of the different options on the menu.
Most people judge Vietnamese places on their Pho, but I’m more of a bun man- a dish that is more simple on the surface, but few places seem to be able to get right. Their version is $7.95 and comes with grilled pork, grilled lemongrass sesame steak, or tofu and mushrooms. A fried spring roll can be added for 55 cents. Shockingly there is no chicken option (they do realize they’re in L.A. right?) or a shrimp option, and sadly there is no “King Way combo” to be had either. But the most polarizing ingredient is likely to be the noodles, which are fresh and thick- a sharp contrast with the thin dry vermicelli noodles you’ll find in most bun in SoCal. The bowl was pretty tasty, and who wouldn’t rather have freshly made noodles? For many, however, they’ll take some getting used to.
You’ll find the same noodles in the slightly spicy bon bo hue ($8.50), along with slices of beef, sweet onions, and pork patties that seemed homemade.
The pho ($7.95) also has fresh noodles in it, but they are flat and square. The broth was mildly beefy and very fragrant, and it’s nice that you can get beef ball, rare steak, brisket and tripe, although there will be those who miss the tendon. It comes with the requisite garnishes (mint, basil, lime and bean sprouts) and I thought it was tasty enough, but I’ll leave the judgements to the real Vietnamese soup experts.
If the fresh noodles aren’t your thing, they have rice plates ($7.95) with grilled pork, steak (shown in the photo) pork chops, or chicken.
And finally, there’s the banh mi. Prices not withstanding, I tend to be overly biased against places that don’t offer cold cuts or pate as options, and perhaps overly excited for places who offer expertly made cold cuts and pate (I’m looking at you Spice Table!) Sadly they fall into the former category, offering only pork, steak, chicken or tofu. But the bread is decent, bordering on very good, and all the flavors are pretty spot on. And the price is not too high considering the size and the location… you can get a small sandwich for $5.50, a large for $6.50. And for any extra $1 they’ll add a fried egg. No complaints here, but I’m also not going to get overly excited either.
All in all Nongla doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the typical Vietnamese cafe that feels like it’s been lifted from Westminster or Alhambra and dropped onto Sawtelle (saving us a drive to Golden Deli or Banh Mi My Tho.) But it’s already better than most (if not all) of the Vietnamese options in the area, with just the right amount of love and caring to offset the abundance of “we still want this to be inviting to white people.” Also, they get bonus point for not naming the place “Little Phosaka Noodle House”.
Nongla, 2055 Sawtelle Blvd, 310-268-1881