First things first: if you are Vietnamese or otherwise familiar with the culinary terrain and back alleyways of Little Saigon, stop reading right now. If you do not heed this warning, I will not be responsible for the damage your spit-take will do to your computer screens.
The restaurant I'm about to review is not meant for you. It's cut from the same cloth as The Slanted Door in San Francisco, and Crustacean in Beverly Hills; places that charge $8.95 for a bowl of pho without batting an eye, catering to customers who might even think it's a bargain. Need more proof? The dinnerware looks like a showcase for Mikasa and in the crowded room, my Asian face was in the minority.
Perhaps my lovely dining companion said it best when she said, “no self-respecting Vietnamese would ever eat here.”
But unlike Crustacean, a regrettable experience that still makes my blood boil, I liked Benley, a lot.
This is an eatery that shares the same sort of vibe as one of my favorites, Cafe Hiro. It's in a sparsely decorated, long, bowling alley of a room that feels as casually unpretentious as it does claustrophobic.
And just like Cafe Hiro, the kitchen takes the base flavors of an Asian culture and blends it with a touch of European prep and presentation. Use the dreaded “f” word if you must. Yes, it is “fusion”.
But with that said, I still couldn't justify paying nine-dollars for bowl of pho.
The first was the lemongrass-charred pork spring rolls ($6.95), which is goi cuon thit nuong for you Little Saigonites who are still with me. Of course, it was just the same protein you'd see on a plate of com tam, wrapped in rice paper with cucumbers and noodles, served with a traditional peanut dipping sauce.
But somehow, despite the fact that it was cut on the diagonal and fashionably arranged upright like a modern art piece, it still won me over. The ribbons of pork were well-flavored like it's meant to be; the rice paper had a pleasant chewy pull; and the dipping sauce was a blubbery warm contrast to the cucumber's cool.
It made me forget (at least for the few seconds it took to eat them) that I could've gotten double the amount in nem nuong rolls at Brodard for a dollar less.
Battered, salted cuttlefish ($7.95) was just fried squid by another name — and when did “cuttlefish” suddenly become a more palatable word than “calamari”? Yet, it's one of the better versions I've had lately.
Coated in a bubbly batter with a noisy crunch, it's pre-drizzled with lime juice and wilted cilantro. Not surprisingly, it's refreshing to the palate and addictive as a result.
Then there's something Benley's menu calls “Vietnamese risotto”($5.95), a dish that demonstrates how well the restaurant has mastered word play with a translation both ingenious and dangerously effective. I was so seduced by it that I completely missed the Vietnamese word printed in italics beneath it. Its true identity? Chao.
That's right folks. I ordered porridge. And I loved it.
Obviously, the substance was nothing like risotto. Its consistency was just what you expect of congee. Plunge a spoon into it and the starch clings like oatmeal. But it's good and satisfying. Every helping was a spoonful of comfort with the taste of chicken broth, cracked black pepper and sauteed mushrooms. If the dish could wink at me and say “Gotcha!” it would've. And I would've high-fived it right back.
For the next dish, care to venture a guess to what the “avocado puree” served with the braised short rib ($6.95) will remind you of?
If you said “guacamole”, you get a prize. So does Benley for creating it. It's simply that: a chopstick-tender hunk of beef, resting on an island of mashed avocado. And despite the fact that the protein needed a touch more salt, it worked.
It's nothing more than two fist-sized boulders of boneless dark meat simmered in a murky yellow broth flecked with tiny melted globules of the rendered fat. Also swimming in it was an obligatory chunk of potato.
Although it was served with an inordinately small serving of rice that will get depleted before you finish the dish, the curry was light enough and perfectly suited to being sipped as soup.
Dessert was buttermilk panna cotta ($6.95), a jiggly, tangy, mouth-filling pudding more sophisticated than Jell-O and lighter than custard. Straddling it was a puddle of sauce that tasted like the lemon meringue filling from Polly's or Marie Callender's.
With it I propose that Benley revise its subtitle. Right now it reads “A Vietnamese Kitchen.” To that, I would add an asterisk.
Benley: A Vietnamese Kitchen
8191 E Wardlow
Long Beach, CA 90808
*Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for this tip.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.