[Hole in the Wall] The Soup and Cubism Special at Cafe Picasso
The Soup & Cubism Special
Bò kho tends to hide among its peers in the pantheon of Vietnamese soups—no restaurants in Little Saigon named after it like the dozens sporting pho and bún bò Hue on marquees, rarely a foodie obsession à la bún rieu or hu tieu. Darn shame because bò kho is an underrated Vietnamese marvel, a deceptively simple beef stew created from tomato stock; carrots; thick, fatty brisket chunks; basil leaves; sawtooth leaves; green-onion slivers; white onions; and a pantry of spices (lemongrass, curry, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, five-spice and heaven knows what more). Plus, a pinch of salt and pepper is served on the side. Sweet, bitter, earthy, gentle, zippy: Most Vietnamese cookbooks call bò kho comfort food, but it’s a disservice to apply such a pedestrian term to this electric soup. And did I forget to mention that a sliced baguette usually accompanies it?
The soup isn’t a rarity in Little Saigon, but it’s usually treated as an afterthought. That’s why it’s great to see bò kho elevated to proverbial art at Café Picasso, a place where the music veers between Elton John and V-pop, and the eclectic décor inside—paintings, couches, fancy lamps—is Bolsa meets Baroque. Here, bò kho isn’t poured into a tureen, but rather a flower-shaped bowl—a smaller portion than normal, sure, but that just means the flavors intensify. Enough brisket is offered to serve as impromptu bánh mìs for tomorrow’s leftovers, and the baguettes—tough on the outside, doughy on the inside—are so absorbent that I swear I once finished a bowl of broth simply by dunking the bread in again and again (the baguettes maintain a good consistency despite the bath).
Café Picasso is unique: It closes each day at 6 p.m. instead of Little Saigon’s customary 2 a.m. for popular places—and it does great business. Vietnamese men too classy to frequent the booty-short coffee shops sit outside and smoke; professionals, young couples and older ladies dressed to the nines have power breakfasts inside. They’re here for the bò kho, but also other Vietnamese classics—rice dishes, noodles, meat, all a tad more elegant than those at other dives. The chefs also place an emphasis on traditional American egg breakfasts, but with a Vietnamese twist. The steak-and-eggs plate comes with a silky pâté, and the “steak” is actually bo luc lac, beef cubed and stirred alongside onions and garlic in a wok. Omelets with Chinese sausage? About time.
Café Picasso, 15619 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 531-0144.
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