Nong La Cafe, West LA. The Home-style Vietnamese Food of Mama Phuong.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote about the Echo Park Noodle Mama – a kind Vietnamese woman that generously fed her family, friends and even strangers tasty noodles for absolutely no charge. The noodle parade ended once Noodle Mama moved to a new home, saddening those in in the Eastside community and for a while we didn’t know if we would be treated to such tasty home cooking. For me, there are two categories of pho. The first being the pho most of us will have – which is in a restaurant. The second being the pho I actually cherish the most – in a kitchen prepared by the hands of a Vietnamese woman. The pho will never taste the same from these categories as expected. At the commercial level, I’ve seen some kitchens with at least a dozen 3′ x 2′ stock pots that can serve a good 250-300 bowls. When you’re boiling hundreds of pounds of beef bones for 8-10 hours overnight, you’re extracting a deeper flavor unachievable at home. I’ve made pho before a few times and it is a long and arduous process that can still cost around $50-60 for a mere 8-10 bowls, not to mention the hours of labor and waiting. Cough up the money elsewhere – it’s not worth it if you’re going for restaurant quality. But more importantly, the commercial pho will never, in my opinion, be as “good” as the home-cooked pho because it misses the one ingredient that varies in every household: a mother’s soul.
Luckily, a new Noodle Mama has surfaced in a restaurant called Nong La Cafe, which is Vietnamese for “straw hat”. She has surfaced in an area that isn’t known for the Vietnamese food – West Los Angeles. The bigger news is that they’ve decided to blaze new trails on the predominantly Japanese neighborhood of West LA known as Sawtelle Blvd, or “Little Osaka”. One can only eat so much on “Ramen Row” so this changes things up a little. We have known the Phuong’s for quite a while. When I heard that the mother, Khanh (Phan) Phuong and her son and daughter, Victor and Elaine Phuong would be bringing their home-style Vietnamese food to the restaurant scene, I was very happy. Jeni and I have been fortunate enough to be invited over for her noodle parties many times and now she’s sharing the love publicly. We’d often leave home with enough leftovers for two more rounds of deliciousness. I first met Elaine years ago when we were both living the American ad agency dream – making an amazing $24,000 straight out of college. She continued to work aimlessly in various agencies and was looking for a career change. Her brother, Victor, was working formerly as a chemist down in San Diego and also completed his CPA exams, but decided towards a new chapter in his life. After talks of opening a restaurant for nearly 8 years, both children left their professions to help realize their mother’s dream of opening up her very own restaurant. And only a week after its opening, it appears to be a successful addition to the Westside.
Khanh (Phan) Phuong was born in Danang, Vietnam and lived all of her life in District #5 of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) until she had Victor and Elaine in the late 70s. Although she lived in Vietnam, her roots are in Hainan Island, an island just south of China and East of Vietnam. You may have heard of this island known mainly for its delicious signature dish, Hainanese chicken rice (海南雞飯) Growing up in a large family with ten brothers and sisters, she took it upon herself to assume kitchen duties. She learned to cook all the popular Vietnamese dishes like pho, bun bo hue, banh canh and bun thit nuong – and she made them well. Like many Vietnamese during the war, she left for a better life in America, devoid of Ho Chi Minh’s communism. Phan left with a 3-year old Victor and with Elaine still in her womb. Getting to this point was an arduous and tragic journey, but it is unnecessary to delve into that area when there’s obviously something good going on. Nearly 30 years later, with grown kids, her brothers and in-laws, the family has stuck together closely and made the restaurant happen. After months of planning, tastings and construction, Nong La opened its doors on May 20, 2012 to satiate those in need of home-style Vietnamese food.
Homecooked Pho vs. Restaurant Pho
I think the main difference between the two is the usage of bones and MSG. Beef bones cost a lot of money, so what most pho places will do to cut down the cost is use a beef bouillon paste, like Minor’s, or some Asian variation which you can find in SGV and Chinatown. And that stuff is usually loaded with MSG. I spoke to the owner of the very popular Noodle Guy in Alhambra and he told me the cost behind making his pho is dizzying, thus the $13 charge for his famed “Kobe beef pho“. I think for every 3′ x 5′ stock pot, 25+ pounds of beef bones are used in your average pho restaurant. Multiply that with however many pots you have going on at the same time. At places like Noodle Guy, Pho Huynh and Pho Filet in South El Monte, you can definitely tell that they’ve used a lot of beef bones for their Northern style pho (pho bac). I don’t know about you, but I don’t like feeling super thirsty after I eat pho, which is a sure indication that the chef has slipped an MSG “rufi” in your soup. I doubt many parents will douse their food with MSG just to make sure it tastes good. At the least, fish sauce has natural umami and MSG so you’re not completely devoid of it. The truth is, most of us are accustomed to a punchy, beefy bowl of pho. So when you do taste something that doesn’t have the MSG punch, it is regarded as bland, or plain. Having been to Hanoi and Saigon to eat pho, I’ve seen how many bones they use for the broth. And I was never thirsty afterwards. It was after the trip to Vietnam that I developed an appreciation for the pure beef and chicken flavor in pho, not something ‘roided up with with MSG.
Nong La’s space is modern and minimal, letting the food speak for itself. The wood furniture is completely custom-designed and produced by the good people at Knowhow Shop in Highland Park. If you remember our outdoor table set by the talented Scout Regalia, this is the same workshop that they produced their tables in. I enjoy eating at the counter!
Here are some of the dishes I enjoy most at Nong La Cafe.
Passion Fruit Iced “Tea”
Normally at a Vietnamese restaurant, one would start with an ice cold glass of cà phê sữa đá (coffee). But I actually recommend this refreshing concoction made my Mama Phuong. I told her it was good enough to add some nice spicy Rittenhouse rye whiskey in there and take it to another level. She asked me in Chinese, why I would do such a thing.
Pho Tai (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup with Rare Steak)
The first time I had Mama Phuong’s beef noodle soup, I enjoyed it so much I had thirds. There was a beautiful balance of beefiness and just the right amount of fish sauce to add salinity and umami. What I like about her pho is that she uses the 1/8″ cut rice noodles that are standard in Northern-style pho (pho bac). This type of noodle is a thinner version of the standard wide rice noodles you see in Hong Kong and Chiu Chow cuisine. Add a few strands of the noodle in the spoon, fill it up with broth and slurp. It’s delicious. I prefer these noodles over the standard dry rice stick noodles. All in all, homey and you won’t feel thirsty.
Pho Ga (Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup)
Surprisingly, for me this is actually superior to the beef pho. Pho ga is the least popular of soup noodles at most Vietnamese restaurants and I rarely ever order it. After having it in Hanoi… drinking the amazingly yellow broth from brown/yellow chickens and charred onions, I converted into a pho ga lover. Mama Phuong’s version is probably my favorite dish of hers – so clean and full of chicken flavor. I noticed that some people on Yelp have declared it bland and light, but that’s what a non-MSG version of pho ga is supposed to taste like. The one I had in Hanoi might have had some MSG in it but what I remember most was how upfront the chicken flavors were in the broth was and how I didn’t have a dry mouth/throat afterwards. My only wish with her soup is a slight kick of ginger to add some roundness to the already flavorful broth. The chickens they use are free-range and you can even taste the flavor in the typically-dry breast meat. Definitely try Mama Phuong’s pho ga.
Bun Bo Hue (Central Vietnam Lemongrass Beef Noodle Soup)
One advantage over most of the Vietnamese places on the Westside is Mama Phuong’s homey version of bun bo hue, which is my favorite Vietnamese noodle dish. With the aroma of lemongrass, light kick of chili sauce and beef broth, it’s the loud, wild cousin of pho. The exclusion of some critical components like braised pork foot and congealed pork blood cubes makes the version here Rated G for everybody, but given the area, the Westside mignt not be ready for something that delicious and “ethnic”. I may bring my own next time!
Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio (Grilled Lemongrass Pork Noodles with Fish Sauce and Egg Roll)
I’m constantly juggling between this dish and the pho ga. I like that Mama Phuong uses a thicker vermicelli for this. The standard bun noodles used for this dish, like the standard rice noodles in pho, tend to clump together pretty quickly if not eaten immediately. She does a good job marinating the pork and grilling it to perfection with slight burnt ends that I like. The fish sauce (Nước chấm) she makes is spot on. I can easily eat two bowls of this.
It’s a wonderful thing to watch your family friends take on a new venture. Their sole mission is to provide the freshest home-style Vietnamese food with everyone. Their opening is perfectly fitting for an area that yearns for something better than what’s out right now. Like many others, I have my go-to restaurants for certain Vietnamese dishes in the San Gabriel Valley or Little Saigon (Westminster) but now that I work on the Westside, I’m happy that I’ve got my go-to spot for Vietnamese. Hopefully you’ll make it yours too. Congratulations to Mama Phuong, Victor, Elaine, Max, Raymond, Ly and Taryn! Thanks for reading.
Nong La Cafe
2055 Sawtelle Blvd (Little Osaka)
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Closed Mondays; Cash/Credit happily accepted
Here are some other recommendations for home-style Vietnamese noodles in San Gabriel Valley and Little Saigon. No guarantees that they offer MSG-free food.
311 E. Valley Blvd Suite 103
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Recommend: bun bo hue, pho ga, bun rieu, mi hoang, avocado or pomegranate shake
1257 E. Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91801
Recommend: Kobe beef pho, oxtail pho, oxtail bun bo hue
741 E. Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Recommend: pho ga
9463 Garvey Ave
South El Monte, CA 91733
Recommend: pho bac (Northern-style pho with filet mignon beef and ginger)
9706 Garvey Ave
El Monte, CA 91733
Recommend: pho bac (Northern-style pho with filet mignon beef and ginger)
14072 Magnolia St
Westminster, CA 92683
Recommend: my #1 choice for bun bo hue outside of Saigon
Vien Dong Restaurant
14271 Brookhurst St
Garden Grove, CA 92843
Recommend: bun rieu oc, bun rieu cha ca
Good Girl Dinette
110 N. Avenue 56
Los Angeles, CA 90042