I worry for Café Lotus, snugly hidden off Old Newport Boulevard, in the shadow of Hoag Hospital, an afterthought for drivers hurrying toward PCH, toward the bro bars of Balboa and Newport's hoity-toity places. This Vietnamese place is better-suited for Little Saigon as part of its 1.5 generation wave of restaurants: immigrant parents who take care of the cooking, assimilated kids who ensure the décor is immaculate, and prices slightly higher than the competition because of better ingredients. But instead, the small restaurant sits mostly empty except for a smattering of devoted doctors, the kind of place where the workers mop the whole floor at dinnertime because there are no diners to inconvenience.
And that's a shame. This is a great place in the French-Vietnamese tradition, with a care for ingredients and cooking usually reserved for the resorts down the coast. Bánh baos, massive steamed buns, get cooked on the premises, with a sweet dough, fragrant pork sausage and veggies that remain crisp in the warmth of the center. They don't mitigate offerings for the Newport crowd—the cha gio crackles like the best that Bolsa can offer; a ca ri ga (called chicken curry on the menu) retains all the flavors that make Vietnamese curry such an unexpected delight (buttery, slightly spicy, thick like the Mekong). And while the bánh mìs are delicious, I usually pass, as the prices are for the Newport crowd. But at least the beef pho features filet mignon!
The best dish is also one of the few truly French-Vietnamese hybrids: a ratatouille crepe. Don't expect something elongated; instead, out comes something closer to a bánh xéo, the Vietnamese-style half-pancake, half-omelet, folded like a quesadilla. The edges are crisped to a golden brown but don't get charred, which would destroy the homey flavors toward the center; the rest of the batter crisps into a chewy, light bánh xéo. Inside is an honest-to-goodness ratatouille: eggplant and zucchini and onions and bell peppers sautéed so they're nearly mushy yet retain their body. Its execution reminds the palate of the joys of sautéing; Drag it through hoisin and Sriracha sauces, and watch the stigma of the Newport location fade away.
Café Lotus isn't a perfect restaurant—desserts consist solely of boxed macarons, a choice even the nice waiters will dismiss as an afterthought. And the sin tos (smoothies), while tasty, aren't smooth enough and tend to clump up. But these are trifles—give Café Lotus your support, and let the dive blossom like its eponymous flower.
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This column appeared in print as "Flower Power."