If we graded like art school professors around here, and sometimes it seems as if we do, the pho baguette at East Borough could well be the dish of the year — a mash-up between bánh mì, pho and French dip, like a demented cronut of the sandwich world. It makes the bäco, the flatbread-taco mash-up that was last year's entrant in this category, seem almost tame.
Bánh mì and pho are probably the two most famous Vietnamese dishes in Los Angeles at the moment, the ones that would come up first in a battle on "Family Feud." You might find sandwiches and beef noodle soup to be basically incompatible. East Borough's Chloe Tran does not — her hoagie combines the spices and long-simmered brisket of pho with the French bread, chiles and pickled vegetables of a bánh mì. A little bowl of pho broth on the side transforms the sandwich into something like a Los Angeles French dip. Is Sriracha aioli involved? Do you even have to ask?
FOR THE RECORD
This review of East Borough refers to a sweet beef jerky garnish as du du. The garnish is kho bo. Also, an earlier version of this "For the Record" mistakenly called it bo kho.
Tran's pho baguette ends up being a little mushy, and I can't help but think I would probably prefer a good bánh mì, pho or French dip to this combination of the three, but it is still very good. Everybody wins.
East Borough is a new Vietnamese bistro on Culver City's restaurant row; a sister of Tran's more casual East Borough in Costa Mesa transplanted onto the skinny triangular block that also holds City Tavern, a moules-frites specialist, the S&W Diner and a perpetually crowded Starbucks. There are colonial tiles on the floor, a Vietnamese newspaper rack by the hostess stand and a pleasant sidewalk dining area fenced off with what look like gaily painted cinder blocks. The first weeks of the restaurant saw bottles of Red Boat, the wonderful but insanely expensive Vietnamese fish sauce, on each table by the chile sauce.
You can get craft beer on tap as well as bottled beers from Singapore and Vietnam. The list of Neo-Expressionist cocktails includes at least one, the Kitchen Garden, whose lashings of house-made celery bitters make it taste like a Chicago hot dog in liquid form. The terrace is a badly needed safe spot for skinny jeans and ironic facial hair in a fairly earnest part of town.
But the main thing about the place isn't that it's an O.C. sandwich shop transplanted to Culver City or a bar scene laminated with stylish Vietnamese touches — although leafy, low-fat, cocktail-lubricated Vietnamese cooking has long been known as superb model-actress provisions. East Borough is a real Vietnamese restaurant shoehorned into a non-Vietnamese setting: puffy fried imperial rolls designed to be tucked into wisps of Boston lettuce with pickles and herbs; cauliflower and long beans stir-fried with fish sauce; a rice bowl with pickles, braised pork belly and poached egg that wouldn't have been out of place at Chego; and a gently spiced papaya salad. (I would have loved to have seen the salad with the common Vietnamese garnish of du du, sweet beef jerky, but no luck.)
Pho makes a reappearance as a dish called wok-charred oxtail, moistened with reduced broth and tossed with the traditional herbs and condiments — a fairly wonderful dish sometimes interpreted here as "phocatini," made with the smoked bucatini co-owner Jason Neroni is famous for at Superba Snack Bar. The Shaky Bo Steak, an interpretation of the sweet, vinegary bo luc lac, "shaking beef," you find on almost every Vietnamese menu, is terrific here, deeply garlicky and edged with char. An almost Spanish crock of clams sizzled with sausage may be my favorite dish in the restaurant, breathing the essence of garlic, fennel and bitter greens.
So the turmeric-stained crepe called bánh xeo isn't unsuccessful here because some consulting chef upped the sugar and toned down the funk, but because expensive shiitake mushrooms turn out to be incompatible with the mildly sweet crunch of the bean sprouts in the filling — a few slivers of the more traditional dried black mushroom would have a bit more flavor and less slippery weight.
Tran's fried trout is iconic, served whole and head-on as if to indicate seriousness of purpose and to scandalize the squares, but the fish has also been deboned — even most of the skull has been removed. It is stuffed with a forcemeat rather extravagantly scented with fermented seafood, and the salty, caramelized chunks of pineapple strewn over the fish are distinctly not what you would spoon over ice cream, but the combination of flavors is harmonious and pleasant. Tran may have designed her trout to shock the locals, but she has also made it easy to eat.
The collision of user-friendliness and hostility is key to understanding this place, I think. East Borough is odd enough to put even its fans on edge but friendly enough for a quick business lunch.
9810 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 596-8266, east-borough.com
Small plates, $10-$18; rice plates, $14-$24; greens, $12-$14
Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays to Wednesdays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Street and city lot parking.