Food

The Find: 9021Pho marks Kimmy Tang's vibrant return

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The grilled prawn and green papaya salad at 9021Pho rests under a stack of crackly ramen-thin fried yam shreds that jut up from the bowl like flames. Its pristine freshness and modern garnish speak volumes about chef-owner Kimmy Tang's individualist approach to the food she grew up eating in Vietnam.

Tang closed her much-admired nouvelle Vietnamese bistro, Michelia on West 3rd Street in Los Angeles, early last year, but the vibrant flavors of her cooking still linger in the minds of fans. Now they're thrilled that she's set up shop in a vacated Beverly Hills pizzeria where she offers a simplified version of her former menu along with her rendition of the northern Vietnamese noodle soup, pho.

She's edited the lengthy list of soup choices so familiar in traditional noodleterias in favor of just four wholly different versions: rare beef, chicken, tuna and tofu.

You say you're looking for pho with the classic braised beef cuts, the chewy tripe, the squishy beef tendon and the pungent, bitter leafy herb accompaniments? Well, pho- geddaboudit. This noodle soup selection is tailored for 90210.

The restaurant opened this month, but word is out, and droves of Tang's followers from her Michelia days along with their friends keep a steady stream of business flowing in. The 35-seat restaurant has plenty of space for single diners at the "noodle bar" seats.

The diminutive Tang, in her trademark chef's bonnet, is easy to spot behind the glass-enclosed cooking area at the center of the restaurant. One minute she's ladling out soup, the next she plays hostess, dashing out to greet her customers to make sure they'll feel welcomed.

Soon they're happy as clams, slurping the flavorful broths, adding squirts of lime and shreds of Asian basil from the garnish plate or hot chile from the condiment tray. "This is Vietnamese penicillin," says my table mate of her chicken pho that's filled with tender slices of skinless breast meat. "It's sure to cure my cold."

The presentation of the phobo is something to behold. A vat of steaming beef broth holding chewy quartered meatballs comes to the table and alongside it a plate of carpaccio-thin sliced lean beef. "Swish the meat slices in the broth and they'll cook," says our waiter. We do, and a few minutes later the soup is ready to eat.

Guests who like more aggressive flavors preferred the spicy-sour noodle soup generously stocked with sole and shrimp. Tart fruity tamarind, hot chiles and the trace of sweetness from pineapple and baby corn create a flavor reminiscent of Thai food.

To drink, a wonderful selection of whole-leaf teas comes brewed in special glass pots and served in tiny glass cups. The house version of the Vietnamese iced coffee drink ca phe sua da is brisk and not too sweet.

Among the salads, char-grilled shrimp and papaya is a personal favorite to share when I'm ordering pho. But the noodle salads are excellent too. Strips of marinated char-grilled pork top a bed of lettuce and bun (vermicelli-style rice noodles) tossed in a Vietnamese vinaigrette with minty herbs and peanuts. The same dish may be had with grilled shrimp or the skinless Vietnamese-style cured sausage.

Entrees far outnumber the noodle soups, and many are geared to vegetarians. The garlic eggplant is spectacularly presented. Two whole Asian eggplants grilled and peeled are drizzled with the barest touch of Vietnamese vinaigrette, sprinkled with crunchy fried garlic and shallot bits and arranged next to a contrasting row of sliced tomatoes. Salmon marinated in lemon grass, star anise and lime juice invigorates the palate.

But it's Tang's curries that best illustrate her intended style. Sautéed chicken or shrimp contrast to the natural sweetness of onion, sliced yam and peas. And rather than a smothering sauce that hides their natural flavors, Tang's version is flavored with light curry-seasoned pan juices.

It's curry 9021Pho style.

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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