It could be argued that other than AnQi—which lies beyond Little Saigon’s boundaries and thus doesn’t survive on what the community thinks of it—few upscale Vietnamese restaurants get very far in the enclave. Until, that is, the Vox Kitchen came to town and bucked the trend. On the menu, there’s a $78 steak that gives Mastro’s a run for its money. But if I had to guess why it succeeded in Little Saigon while others failed, it’s this: It doesn’t just serve Vietnamese food.
In fact, as of press time, the Vox Kitchen doesn’t offer a single dish that’s overtly Vietnamese. Instead, there’s Mexican elote and Korean galbitang. Its most popular item is arguably the saltado, a Chinese-Peruvian stir-fry that comes with a side of aji verde, a sauce that has become a brand signature. You can even order the saltado to supplement bowls of pho at the two Sup Noodle Bars, which are managed by the same group.
Sup Noodle Bar was Kei Concepts’ first project and became a hit by essentially inventing an all-you-can-eat pho restaurant. It got the group not only a foothold in the business, but also the experience to start Vox. But both were warmups to its most ambitious venture yet: Gem Dining.
Though still in its soft-opening phase, Gem Dining is already a game-changer in Little Saigon. As word spreads that it’s the new restaurant by the Vox geniuses, prime-time reservations are impossible to snag if you don’t plan two weeks ahead. And it’s not just the reputation that precedes it; Gem Dining is housed in one of Little Saigon’s most impressive construction projects to date. Overlooking Mile Square Park, the building is a modern edifice of glass and right-angle geometry. Anyone looking at it will recognize the group invested a lot of money and thought.
Inside, it’s no different. The open kitchen is as big and bustling as the one at Disneyland’s Napa Rose. The best seats are at the bar overlooking the controlled chaos that somehow results in your dinner. Here, I witnessed the confident direction of its head chef, a chiseled Asian dude with a shaved head who looked as if he could go toe-to-toe with John Wick.
I also noticed his crew contained no one older than 30. They talk and operate like second- and third-generation Asian cooks who are versed in the traditions of their parents as well as inspired by the likes of David Chang and Roy Choi.
And in the same kind of trailblazing style, the creative minds at Gem Dining aren’t interested in rehashing things you can get on Bolsa Street. Instead, the menu catapults you to the rest of Asia, covering the uncovered, taking risks and betting that its Vietnamese customers are up for a little adventure. There’s even a roving cart that offers oysters, dim sum-style. As you look at the list of dishes, you realize the chefs are cooking what they themselves want to eat.
Label it modern Asian or fusion, if you must. But at its core, these are updated takes that have nothing dumbed-down. Proof? I ate century-old egg, its albumen oynx-black and the yolk bruise-blue. It was served traditionally with silken tofu and pork floss looking as furry as a Star Trek tribble. The fact that Gem Dining offers it so proudly makes me believe the mainstream might soon be primed enough to understand it, maybe even try it.
Either way, the only language you need to know here isn’t Vietnamese; it’s restaurant-speak. When it comes to beef, Kobe is no longer king; it abdicated the crown to Miyazaki A5 Wagyu, which is offered at $49 for a 3-ounce striploin. Those fluent in fine-dining trends should already know that beets go well with burrata, as it does here in an oversized salad sprinkled with candied cashews and juice-bursting lychee. There’s even a properly chilled scallop crudo in the style of Nobu, drenched in familiar flavor profiles of yuzu and extra-virgin olive oil.
If you happen to be from one of the Asian countries to which the cooks pay special homage, you’re in for a treat. As an Indonesian who has been disappointed at what other non-Indonesian restaurants pass as nasi goreng, I was initially skeptical. But someone back there seems to know that adding a fried egg doesn’t automatically turn fried rice into Indonesia’s signature dish. You also need to do as Gem’s cooks did: wok-toss the grains with homemade sambal, a touch of terasi and drizzles of kecap manis. Although the crisped pieces of pork jowl aren’t traditional, when I tasted the dish, I came to the same verdict a Singaporean who orders the spicy seafood laksa or the chile-sauce softshell crab will inevitably conclude: They nailed it.
Gem Dining, 10836 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 516-8121; www.gemdining.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. Shareables, $6-$19; entrées, $7-$110. Beer and wine.
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.