Monday, December 17, 2007

The Man Behind the Noodle

I get a certain thrill when I meet a person who's solidly interesting. It's always fun to hear a new set of stories, especially when they take you to exotic lands and out-of-city experiences. I had just this kind of experience the other night, chatting with Viet, the owner of Viet Soy Cafe in Silver Lake and the new Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village, my personal Tuesday night dinner table.

My cousin Mikey, a USC film student, lives upstairs from Kaldi Coffee House on Glendale Boulevard. His roommate is the son of a man named Avo. Avo owns Kaldi, the apartment upstairs, and a good chunk of the block, including the space now filled with Viet Noodle Bar. Thanks to his associations with Avo and his son, Mikey is very much part of the boulevard's community. So, as we finished up dinner, Viet came over, and a compliment from Mikey on the tastebud-singing C-shot rolled into a conversation that had us lingering at the table long after the last diners had left.

So what did we learn? Well, Viet came to the United States around 20 years ago, but took a seven year break a few years back. Two of those years he walked the earth, then planted himself in a small fishing village in northern Vietnam for the remaining five. From the locals, he picked up techniques: working with just-caught fish and rice straight from the local fields, they had to plan meals carefully, as there was no refrigeration. It was here that he learned the fundamentals that inform his menus today -- 'peasant' food in sharp contrast to the French-influenced bahn mi so beloved around here: rice noodles, soy milk and other soy products, fish cookery, and rice wine.

When I expressed an interest in the last item, he smiled and offered me a taste. He pulled out a curvy oversized green glass jug, holding a clear dark brown liquid, and poured a small glass. This particular batch, he'd flavored with crab apples, and its fruity flavor barely masked its potency. Nothing like soju or sake, this tangy, slightly sweet rice wine tasted unexpectedly familiar, warming, and thoroughly drinkable.

He's got some interesting ideas for the new space. The eponymous noodles are the focus, and now that winter is upon us, he's added two pho dishes to the menu: a chicken variety ('no hoisin and basil!' the menu warns us firmly; Viet states that hoisin is good with beef but overpowers delicate chicken.), and a vegetarian pho with meaty chunks of rolled soy skin, shiitake mushrooms, and lemongrass. I had the latter, and with its slightly sweet broth, soft noodles of irregular widths, and generous spray of cilantro and green onions, it hit the spot in the blustery night. But get the pho while you can: in the summer, he's planning to go with lighter noodle dishes like vermicelli. The menus at both of his restaurants are all-organic, and he plans to re-open Soy Cafe on Hyperion after the holidays.

Mikey prodded him about rumors of a night market. Nothing is set in stone, but he's talked with another local business owner about the possibility: stands selling produce and street foods in the wee hours on Friday nights. A far cry from the quiet nights in a fishing village, no doubt, but sure sounds interesting, doesn't it?

1 comment: