Spencer's Bistro is not in a location where you'd expect to find anything featuring the word bistro. It's behind a Del Taco in a gritty, treeless parking lot, next to a lawnmower repair shop and a liquor store in a dilapidated strip mall that looks as if it has been around since Elvis topped the charts.
When it gets dark here, you don't linger outside; you make a beeline to your car, lock the doors, and go somewhere more well lit and less post-apocalyptic. Yet on the menu you see confit and velouté, fresh-made pastas and creamy risottos, crudo and ragout. If all of this fancy food seems out-of-sorts for the surroundings, you realize it isn't when you look at the prices. Most of the dishes tick around the $11 mark. And since you order and pay at the counter, and since there's a plastic bin into which you're expected to bus your own table, tipping isn't compulsory.
That's when it all makes sense. If Spencer's Bistro weren't in this literally low-rent building, it might not be able to charge what it does. And because everything else that usually hikes up restaurant prices has been stripped away—hostesses, servers, ambiance—what's left are the essentials: a place to sit, utensils you pluck from a communal bin and a pair of whirring A/C wall units for when the weather gets hot.
This is not to say there's no music or atmosphere. Most nights, you hear hair-band rock ballads blasting from an unseen stereo in the open kitchen. And the kitchen—a flurry of blazing pans and gurgling fryers—is where chef/owner Spencer Kim chooses to focus all of his energy and efforts. He is the kind of chef who seems to insist on making everything from scratch, even when he doesn't have to.
For his rendition of the now-ubiquitous poutine, Kim makes his own cheese curds to melt over a mound of fries topped with chicken confit and pan sauce. He also makes the pepperoncinis he piles on the side of the plate. Why bother with the latter? Because he can—and you actually need it to cut through the richness.
Kim doesn't stop there. He makes the graham crackers and the marshmallows for his S'mores dessert, as well as the hot sauce he dollops onto a plate of what might have been just standard fried calamari. Instead, Kim's piquant chile paste makes the usual throwaway appetizer a must. And it isn't just because the hot sauce is so good it rivals Huy Fong's; Kim also tosses the rings of battered squid with scallions and thin slices of house-made pickled jalapeños, setting it all atop a swirled base of garlic toum. And when it's served, this $5 dish is plated neatly and deliberately as though it costs at least three times as much.
You're right to suspect that Kim came from a fine-dining background. He credits his stint at Roy's in Newport Beach for teaching him the trade. And there are hints of Yamaguchi's influence in the way he sneaks Asian ingredients where you least expect them. Kim sauces his braised beef cheeks—a meltingly tender hunk covered in its own caramel-like demi-glace—with Thai green curry. And when the two sauces combine as you fork up the mashed potatoes and sautéed broccoli, you couldn't imagine the dish without them both. In fact, everything Kim puts on the plate needs to be there, even the tomato-and-onion salad he places on top of the meat as though it were Peruvian salsa criolla.
Elsewhere, Kim's Asian touch is subtle. Kim adds miso to a risotto he uses as a base starch for a garlic-and-herb-crusted filet of white fish, but it's imperceptible. On a salmon crudo salad, he includes just enough Korean chile vinaigrette to make it interesting. But if you're going to have salad, the best is the Milanesa, which is a salad in name only. A huge plank of a perfectly fried, breaded, dark-meat chicken cutlet occupies most of the plate. There may be enough greens dressed with Parmesan and chimichurri in the dead middle it can't be called garnish, but you get the sense the salad is there in service of the chicken, not the other way around.
For a strawberry-shortcake dessert, Kim bakes from scratch what he calls a “shortbread” biscuit. He then piles on the strawberries and Chantilly cream until the dish wobbles under its own weight, surrounding it with a thin strawberry sauce that's also probably house-made. In fact, it's safe to assume that if it's edible, Kim makes it here, in his gourmet kitchen next to a lawnmower repair shop.
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.