Tin Vuong is a perpetual people pleaser, which for a chef with a restaurant empire as ambitious as his is meant as a hearty compliment.
Over the last five years, the San Gabriel Valley native (along with business partner Jed Sanford) opened a wild array of distinctly different and wonderfully executed restaurants across Los Angeles County, including a beachfront brewpub with punk rock roots (Abigaile), a bohemian Mexican joint (Dia De Campo), a grandpa-status whiskey bar and steakhouse (Steak & Whisky), a Neopolitan-style pizza parlor (Wildcraft) and two versions of his neo-Vietnamese bistro, which come with a soundtrack of vulgar hip hop (Little Sister).
Though many of Blackhouse Hospitality's restaurants are within a few miles of one another in L.A.'s South Bay, each has its own allure for the differing interiors, cuisines, cocktails and crowds.
A few months ago, Vuong and Sanford added another entirely new concept to their lineup: Huntington Beach's Bluegold, a sleek "California coastal eatery" with 180-degree, second-floor views of the ocean.
Located at the Pacific City development, it's the duo's first entry into Orange County. And it's a return to the area for Vuong, who after culinary school landed at the St. Regis in Dana Point, where he worked his way up to executive sous chef of the entire resort. When Sanford found Vuong through a headhunter in 2011, he was director of culinary operations at Sapphire in Laguna Beach.
Bluegold offers casual opulence in a cruise ship of a location. The menu bounces between left-of-center traditionalism — there's a selection of Japanese Wagyu chef cuts with a snow-crab, surf-and-turf add on — and Vuong originals like shrimp and crab ravioli, uni risotto, seafood-drenched paella and garam masala-spiced short ribs, making it a notable introduction to the chef's boundless creativity that remains approachable to the average Pacific City passer-through.
But while the array of steam kettles (for chowder-ing) and extensive raw bar (for tower-ing) read like precisely the kind of upscale seafood restaurant Orange County continually thinks it needs, hiding within Bluegold is another restaurant entirely, one so understated in its presentation and yet brash in its flavors that O.C. didn't even know it needed it until it got here.
Follow the trail of multicolored stenciled butterflies on the ceiling near Bluegold's wine cellar to an unmarked wooden door next to the kitchen, and you'll fall into LSXO, a 25-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant that serves unapologetically intense Vietnamese home cooking and slings fine cocktails from a boat-bathroom of a bar over a lulling soundtrack of Snoop Dogg and DMX.
That this all happens with prim table service in a dimly lit dining room outfitted to transport you to a late-night Cantonese café in 19th century Saigon (when the drapes are open, views of the Huntington Beach pier are included too) only solidifies its unorthodoxy.
On your first visit, you might be inclined to think of LSXO as just a reimagined, speakeasy-style offshoot of Little Sister, the chef's Manhattan Beach and downtown L.A. odes to Southeast Asian cooking. Since launching in 2013, both Little Sisters have been praised for exploring not only Vietnamese dishes, but also incorporating flavors and techniques from Sichuan, Malaysian, Indonesian and Burmese cuisines. No doubt, Vuong pushed the public's palate by channeling some of his personal favorites and making them as funky, fishy and spicy as anywhere in Little Saigon or the San Gabriel Valley.
Yet, it's quickly clear from LSXO's menu — despite keeping the rich breakfast congees and stacked banh mis once only available at the Little Sister in downtown L.A. — that this is not a restaurant content to rehash what's already been done. Taking a nod from the location's proximity to Little Saigon, Vuong sloughed off the other Southeast Asian influences and did an even deeper dive into his Vietnamese-Cantonese upbringing, nodding to his family's history in Saigon's historic Chinatown by adding more noodles, more soups and more homestyle Vietnamese cooking to a menu that is funkier, fishier and spicier than ever.
Even dishes that appear at the other Little Sister locations are made differently at LSXO. The Shaky Shaky beef is more audacious, its fish sauce and pepperiness less glazed over with sugar and soy. The beef tartare is also no longer fused with numbing Sichuan peppers and pears; at LSXO, you get the simple, aromatic addition of Vietnamese herbs, probably culled from Vuong's own backyard.
New dishes further explore the varied flavors found in Saigon kitchens and include a must-try curry-spiced lamb satay on a bed of soft egg noodles, a plate of pork-stuffed tofu cubes stewed in tomatoes and okra, and the bo ne, the Vietnamese's pungent take on traditional steak and eggs made with meaty paté butter and served with a crunchy baguette.
Winter is good time to get acquainted with LSXO's nourishing soups, like the bun thang, a Vietnamese chicken noodle soup; canh chua, a sweet-and-sour catfish concoction that comes in a clay pot; and the pork-all-ways banh canh vuong, a Saigon-style meal-in-a-bowl with chunks of pork belly, pork skin cracklins and savory pork. Arrive after lunch but before dinner to take advantage of LSXO's afternoon Chinese tea, which lets you sip on Hong Kong-style milk tea and eat open-faced sandwiches for $21 per person.
Sure, many of LSXO's dishes could be found much cheaper at any number of restaurants along Bolsa Avenue, but here Vuong has kept the unflinching authenticity while elevating the experience (interesting California wines, herbed cocktails, warm lavender hand towels), adding a distinctive chef's touch and dragging them somewhere they've never been before — right up to the ocean's edge.
Of all Vuong's ideas so far, LSXO is not only the loudest, it's also the first that was created to hide in plain sight, a tiny café of a restaurant that won't accommodate dietary restrictions, never plays a rap song's radio edit and doesn't bank on its exclusivity for praise. LSXO also feels like the project closest to the chef's own heart, a place where, for once, Vuong isn't worried about pleasing anyone but himself.