Alright - it's time. I've been going to Viet's restaurants - first the teeny Viet Soy Cafe, and now the newer, bigger, and better Viet Noodle Bar - for about a year and a half now. They've been my serious favorite joints for a while now.
DISCLAIMER: I interviewed Viet Tran, the chef/owner, for my article in the LA Times about him, the Scoops Ice Cream dude, and Olimpus. So he knows me now. But I picked all the folks for the interview because I was a long time customer, fan, insane devotee, etc. etc. - and I was all secret and anonymous and stuff for the first year and a half I ate there. My opinion - and devotion - was formed well before he knew who I was.
Viet Noodle Bar (where Viet, and thus where the action, is most of the time) is one of my favorite restaurants around, and certainly the only good Vietnamese food I've found in Los Angeles proper. I typically go down to Little Saigon with some frequency, to get in touch with my ethnic roots and all that. Thus far, Vietnamese food in Los Angeles, including Chinatown, can't hold a *candle* to the stuff in Little Saigon. (San Gabriel stuff can come close, but mostly, the true glory is in Little Saigon.) The stuff in Los Angeles: either flavorless and watered down, or listless, or Korean-ized, which means lots of heavy spicing and masking flavors and not much in the way of pure, clean flavor. I've tried and tried and been disappointed, until the first time, walking down the street, I got a whiff of Viet's place.
First thing: Viet makes soy milk from organic soy beans almost every morning. It's insanely fresh. It's nothing like any other soy milk I've tasted. Most soy milk in America: terrible, noxious, bitter tastes. Fresh soy milk from a few vendors: quite good. I used to drive down to Little Saigon, to that soy milk-tofu factory storefront right by the big Three Buddhas mall, just for a mouthful of good fresh soy. Viet is above them all. This is soy milk of love, soy milk of mastery, soy milk of wonder. He has it straight. He has it infused with Vietnamese cinnamon. He has it infused with yerba mate. He uses it to make the best cafe sua da (Viet coffee with sweetened milk) I've ever had. He uses it to make the most tender, soft, cloud-like tofu pudding in ginger syrup I've ever had.
He makes chicken pho which is one of the two best pho's I've had in SoCal. (The other is Pho Minh, in El Monte. Strangely, pho is the one department where immediate LA area now beats Little Saigon - though only at the tippy top exemplars, not in average.) It is totally, completely, terrifyingly pure. It is northern style. Which means: no herb platter, no sprouts. Just a pure confrontation with absolute purest chicken. This is a chicken experience on par with, say, halibut sashimi - delicate, gorgeous, the subtlest possible meat-sweet.
Noodles are... perfect. Kind of that delicate, gossamar mouthfeel. Most other pho shops, even in LIttle Saigon, seem to use dried pho noodles. These are really, really, *really* fresh. They have that suppleness... that sort of near-dissolving slippery half-velvetyness... hard to describe. Wonderful noodles. Again, the only place that compares is Pho Minh.
Other good stuff: vegetarian shiitake pho (totally his invention, but very Vietnamese), jackfruit shiitake salad, anything with soy-skin (little gloriously chewy rolls of fresh soy-skin). Banh mi sandwiches are really good.
The aesthetic is: super-clean, super-pure, ingredient-forward, pure, delicate. Not a place with lots of heavy spicing. High in balance and purity, low in complex, obvious seasoning. If you like pho for loads of cinnamon, clove, etc. flavor, you'll be disappointed. This is chicken nectar. It's best to close your eyes and sort of sup lightly and *concentrate*.
This place restores my soul when I'm sad.
Anyway, in the interview, I found out a bunch of things: Viet used to be a computer programmer, Viet had some sort of soul-changing experience, Viet wandered around Northern Vietnam and stayed at little villages where they only made one thing and were secret about the recipe, and Viet learned pho and noodle technique there. Viet also thinks that making soy milk is a form of zen meditation, and he wants to *go into women's prison's and teach them to make soy* because it's a calming experience, and because soy is good for women. (That last factoid was cut from my article. The editor thought it was irrelevant. Can you believe that? I can't think of anything more relevant. Teaching soy milk making in a women's prison. That's the most relevant thing, like, ever.) He exudes zen-chill. He may be the single chillest person I've ever met. A bunch of girls I took there afterwards declared him to be "the most lickable man in Los Angeles." He likes to chat. Back in the days when he ran the teeny Viet Soy bar, which had about 7 seats, he would talk to everybody, serve everybody, chat 'em up, give 'em samples. Viet Noodle Bar is larger, but he's still there most of the time, and still chats people up.
He's also opening a soy milk tasting bar in the new annex to Viet Noodle. Last time I was there, the bar was open, but unattended. His regular restaurant has some pretty insane flavors: yerba mate soy milk, black sesame soy milk. They're pretty perfect. The bar, he told me in the interview, is for his insaner side. Last time I was there (post-interview), he told me he had some new flavors - raw organic garlic soy milk, turmeric soy milk. I tried. They are... shocking. *Bizarre*. Great. The garlic soy milk has this long, strangely sweet aftertaste. It's also a kick in the head. He mixed it with a little cinnamon soy milk, which is perfect. He complained that nobody's ordered the garlic soy milk. I said, "Uh, it's not on your menu. How are they supposed to know about it?" Viet shrugged.
He's that kind of guy.