Is Eleven46 Kitchen the Chipotle of Vietnamese Cuisine?
We all seem to think we know how to run a restaurant regardless of whether we've ever owned or operated one. So when you find yourself in a restaurant that deviates from this ideal, even just a little, you start playing the role of an armchair Gordon Ramsay or Robert Irvine. You think you know exactly what's wrong and how to fix it.
On our way home from Eleven46 Kitchen, a new Vietnamese restaurant in Foothill Ranch, my mates and I—though full and satiated from eating well—couldn't help but think of a thing or two the place needed to do differently. We agreed the Chipotle-style menu was a bit confusing. "It took too long to decipher," one mate said. "They should have the dishes spelled out in all their possible permutations, like other Vietnamese restaurants."
The "Create Your Plate" menu's first outlined step was to pick "The Base," either a plate of rice, the cold vermicelli noodle bowl called bún, a sandwich or a salad. Step two was to choose the meat, either lemongrass beef, spicy pork or one of three distinctly different preparations of chicken. Finally, you needed to decide on a side dish: Asian slaw, a small salad, shrimp chips, sweet potato fries or plain fries.
But while Chipotle's modular meat roster stands before you in steam trays for easy depositing by an assembly line of workers into a taco, burrito, bowl or salad, we saw that Eleven46's chosen proteins don't lend themselves to the same kind of operational model. The spicy pork still needed grilling over hot grates to achieve the proper ruddy, charred-edge sweetness. The chicken roti turned out to be an actual half-chicken roasted to a mahogany sheen; this was best eaten with fingers to pry out all the well-cooked, deeply flavored, soft, juicy meat that was practically slipping from the bones. And when we finally got the lemongrass beef, it was served skewered on sticks with onions, the thin, herb-perfumed ribbons of meat resembling kebabs resting on the brim of a bowl of bún.
From a separate menu of bánh mìs, we ate what may be Eleven46's best item: the flawless Dunk and Dip Tri Tip Sandwich, a crusty baguette stuffed with thin folds of roasted beef, fried onions, grilled peppers and provolone cheese. To moisten every bite, you dip the sandwich into a vaguely Asian au jus punched up with cracked pepper and a smidge of vinegar. On the first night we ordered it, the staff tried to serve the sandwich without the dipping liquid—an omission all too obvious because of its name. Only when I inquired did they admit they ran out and needed to prepare more. As we watched them scramble in the kitchen to do so, I thought of their closest competitor, about a block away, a pho restaurant owned by a Japanese guy and staffed by Hondurans who were so skilled and experienced at producing plates of Vietnamese food it was second nature to them. Eleven46 is still green by comparison. When I asked whether she has owned other restaurants, the woman I spoke to said this was the first. The family decided to open it after a few members were laid off from day jobs. Eleven46 has been open only about a month.
To satiate us as we waited for the au jus, she gave us a basket of rolls—something we never touched. But we wondered how much offering these rolls (something not on the menu) and fryer-fresh sweet potato fries with homemade Sriracha mayo was eating into the place's margins? These options were never anything that anyone would've required or demanded from a Vietnamese restaurant. There were even fresh-fried beignets dusted with powdered sugar for dessert, something also offered in the morning with coffee—but nothing else, not even a breakfast bánh mì. And would anyone even miss the chicken noodle soup? We tried it one night, but because turnover on it was low, it had simmered so long the noodles disintegrated, turning the whole thing to porridge.
If a quick-service model could work here at all, it would only be with the bánh mìs, which are sublime. Most come with a schmear of pâté and what I presume to be homemade mayo inside a house-made baguette. Ultimately, it was again my mate who finally said what we were all thinking: "I loved the food, want them to succeed, but I'm worried for them." Not that any of us pretend-Ramsays know anything about running a restaurant.
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