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French onion soup ... but make it cheesy toast?

The French onion soup toast from Camphor in the DTLA Arts District.
The French onion soup toast from Camphor in the DTLA Arts District.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)
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Some weeks, there is a through-line connecting the dishes I recommend. Other weeks, it’s completely random. This is one of those weeks. The first dish is a playful presentation of a classic French soup and the second is a bowl of won tons that will most likely make you cry, in a good way.

French onion soup toast from Camphor

The French can be proud of many things. They invented pasteurization, the Etch A Sketch, the metric system, bicycles and calculators, they have a stellar soccer team and they’re responsible for the wonder condiment that is mayonnaise (depending on which historian you ask). But the most impressive of all may be French onion soup.

What’s not to love about the lusciousness of long-simmered onions, rich beef broth and a crouton abundantly blanketed in Gruyère cheese that melts in tempting globs over the bowl? These are all good things. And it tastes fancy, like the dimly lighted, smoke-filled French bistro of my dreams. I want to drown in it, then pick at the melted cheese until the bowl is clean.

The only problem (if you’re in a group) is that it is difficult to share, so chefs Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George turned the beloved soup into a shareable toast at their Arts District restaurant Camphor.

“The weather was getting cold and our wives kept talking about French onion soup,” Boonthanakit said during a recent call. “All the dishes kind of come from just what we want to eat, or what the people around us want to eat.”

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French cuisine is the baseline but not the boundary for chefs Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George.

The dish starts with a hunk of sourdough bread brushed with brown butter and toasted in the oven. The chefs then spread on their version of a soubise, made with heaps of caramelized onions spiked with apple cider vinegar, butter, chives and thyme. Both shredded Comte (for the funk) and Gruyère (for the melt) are added to the top; the toast then sits in the oven until the cheese browns and bubbles.

This is how the dish is presented at the table, on a large white platter. Before I could reach for a slice, a server slowly poured hot soup around the plate, transforming the slab of bread into a giant crouton.

The soup was thick like gravy, sweet and meaty, with a heavy poultry flavor. Instead of the more traditional veal, George and Boonthanakit make duck bouillon for the soup.

“I wanted to have a sweeter version without adding any sweetness to the soup,” George said. “Duck just came to mind.”

You pull away a slice of toast and drench it in the soup, sopping up the liquid until the bread is saturated with the stuff. Vive la France!

All the spicy things from DX-Lab

A bowl of won ton soup from DX-Lab in San Gabriel.
Spicy won ton soup from DX-Lab in San Gabriel.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

DX-Lab, located in a medium-size shopping center along Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel, is far from the most well-known place for numbingly hot bowls of soup, noodles and dumplings. It actually might be known best for its colorful buns, stuffed with mushrooms and pork in shades of green and orange colored by vegetable juice in the dough. Or the Super Flight, served as five small bowls filled with dan dan noodles, spicy crunchy beef noodles, spicy pork wontons, spicy pork dumplings and sweet and fruity Bingfen. But if you’re in the mood for won ton soup with a punishing heat, a bowl dominated by chiles and garlic, this is the place to be.

The Numb Me B— is one angry bowl of soup. The pork wontons flop around in a scarlet liquid studded with chiles that menacingly float among the dumplings. Chile oil pools on the surface, and you can see bits of Sichuan peppercorn waiting to pounce. The mala kicks in almost immediately, and by the second wonton, that familiar numbness creeps up and warms your mouth.

On this week’s episode of ‘The Bucket List: Dumplings,’ Jenn Harris explores two disparate styles of wontons in Los Angeles

The bang bang chicken is less angry but still a welcome surfeit of chiles and garlic. If you Google “bang bang chicken,” variations of fried chicken dunked in a mayonnaise- and Sriracha-based pink sauce dominate the results. This is a very different kind of bang bang chicken. The meat is chopped into pieces, swimming in a bowl of sauce under a heap of dried chiles, garlic and green onion. A single spoonful is potent enough to dress up an entire plate of rice.

A bowl of chicken.
The bang bang chicken from DX-Lab in San Gabriel.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

The chicken skin has the rubbery, gelatinous texture of good Hainan chicken. It’s the perfect vessel for the sauce, which seeps under the skin and into the meat, injecting it with heat. Flushed and sweating, I thought about all the other things I wanted to drown in the sauce. Later in the week, I used it as a condiment for a bucket of Jollibee fried chicken.

What to eat this week

Camphor, 923 E. 3rd St Suite 109, Los Angeles, (213) 626-8888, www.camphor.la

DX-Lab, 529 E. Valley Blvd Suite 108 A, San Gabriel, www.dramxla.com


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