If a theme has emerged in Los Angeles restaurants over the last several years, from Picca and Spice Table to Lukshon, A-Frame, Rivera and Corazon y Miel, it is the idea of Asian American and Latin American chefs trained in classical European kitchens, driven to reinterpret the tastes they grew up on through rigorous French technique. This isn’t fusion food, which tends largely to be the application of Asian flavors to non-Asian dishes; this is chopped-and-channeled cooking designed to heighten the original sensations, a kind of reverse colonialism of the plate.
The latest anti-fusion hero on the block is Tin Vuong, chef and owner of the Manhattan Beach restaurant Little Sister, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, worked his way up through grand hotel kitchens and has spent the last couple of years as chef at the well-regarded Hermosa Beach gastropub Abigaile.
Vuong’s beef tartare involves hand-chopped beef, pear, egg yolk and pine nuts in the manner of the Korean raw-beef dish yuk hwe, and a light dusting of Sichuan peppercorns, a flavoring most common in western China. It looks like an American steak tartare. There is a smear of bone marrow paste — French? You scoop it all up with cassava chips, which I associate with Indonesian grocery stores and Trader Joe’s. And a torn mint leaf and hint of star anise in the assembled mouthful steers the dish at the end toward Vietnam, which is kind of a neat trick. In his own quiet way, Vuong wants to blow your mind.
Little Sister is a happy, beachy restaurant next to Darren’s and across the street from MB Post and Fishing With Dynamite, on what has become Manhattan Beach’s restaurant row. It is a little dimly lighted, perhaps, but buzzy and cheerful, with candles in Mason jars, Hitachino Nest on draft and a roomful of locals who have opinions on Garnacha. If you want to eavesdrop on awkward OkCupid dates, you could scarcely do better. It feels a little like UCLA Alumni Day in the dining room.
But those scraps of verse stenciled onto the walls, if you have punk rock in your past, you may recognize them as lyrics from songs by Fugazi and Black Flag, the latter of which came from this neighborhood. The music pulsing just below the threshold of recognizability isn’t generic electronica, it’s gangsta rap, which was born in a Torrance recording studio also not far from here. If you find yourself in the restroom in the course of an evening, you’ll notice that the fluttering butterflies painted on the walls are in the process of pulling the pin on a hand grenade.
As the murderous butterflies suggest, Little Sister is a date-night restaurant with mayhem at its soul, Vuong’s menu suggests a pan-Asian small plates restaurant retooled to operate in the San Gabriel Valley, each dish twisted not toward the comfortable trio of sugar, garlic and chiles, but toward the wilder palette of fermented flavors, dried fish and gooey texture most common on the other side of the Los Angeles River.
There is even a section of the menu devoted to what Vuong calls Eastside 626 Provisions, which is to say banchan-like condiments like bean sprouts with sesame; jasmine rice cooked in broth; lightly pickled okra with fenugreek; and spicy Indonesian-style chile sauces.
The “Balinese-style” fried meatballs suggest a kind of clove-scented Lebanese kibbe, served with a house-made Filipino banana ketchup whose spicing pulls the dish back toward the Indonesian archipelago after all. The stir-fried pea tendrils are served with fresh lime juice and a rough chop of almonds and dried seafood that suggests a Hong Kong-style XO sauce. The steamed snapper is garnished with the ginger, herbs and crackling-hot peanut oil that suggests a classic Hong Kong preparation, and the luscious fried salt-and-pepper lobster comes straight out of Hong Kong too, but again, the fragrance — fried shallots, lots of fresh chile — creeps in the lush, tropical direction of Southeast Asia.
And although there is obvious craft in the Burmese-style flatbread stuffed with minced lamb, kima platha, the Cantonese-style clams with black bean sauce and the limp if tasty Malaysian duck sate with pear, it is clear that Vuong is at his best with Vietnamese-inspired dishes — rougher than what you might find in Rosemead or Little Saigon but not bad with a glass of nut brown ale.
So there are rice paper rolls, less traditional spring rolls than like what you might assemble yourself at a nem nuong restaurant such as Brodard in Westminster or Nem Nuong Kanh Hoa in Alhambra: chewy spears of grilled ground pork wrapped into tight bundles with herbs, vegetables and crunchy shrimp rolls thin as cigarettes.
You will find big salads of grilled prawns tossed with herbs and shredded vinegared root vegetables, crisp Vietnamese crepes folded like taco shells over bean sprouts and pork belly, and hunks of pork shank on the bone with black Vietnamese caramel. I may like Vuong’s version of chao tom, minced shrimp grilled on juicy lengths of sugar cane, better than the original — his shrimp balls are fluffy and aromatic, where the standard pho restaurant chao tom is bouncy, meant more to be stuffed into something than to be eaten on its own.
Little Sister may not yet be up to the level of Slanted Door, the San Francisco neo-Viet restaurant to which it is sometimes compared, but it is one of those rare restaurants where you eat far better than you think you’re going to.
There has always been a dark vein of anarchy just beneath the surface in the South Bay, at least since the postwar working-class utopia was wiped out by the collapse of the aerospace plants and the inequities of the real-estate boom. The gentle sea breezes nourished not just the Beach Boys but also the dystopian genius of Raymond Pettibon, Charles Bukowski and Thomas Pynchon. It’s asking a lot of a restaurant to express a social theme — most of them have a hard enough time putting out properly cooked fish on a busy Saturday night — but Little Sister seems to be doing a pretty good job.
Vietnamese anti-fusion with a punk rock heart
1131 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-2096, littlesistermb.com
Small plates, $3-$13; larger plates, $10-$38; desserts, $8-$10
Dinner nightly from 5 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Valet parking.
Ma la beef tartare; imperial rolls; chao tom; Singapore curry noodles