If you’ve been to Bluegold at Pacific City and thought, as I did, that it was an uneven experience, you need to push the reset button, then go back and try LSXO, the Vietnamese restaurant within the restaurant. It turns out that this speakeasy-ish backroom, accessible through a set of heavy doors to the right of Bluegold’s kitchen, is like the hidden level in Super Mario Bros. that holds all the coins. The room looks unfinished, as though the contractor quit mid-job, leaving walls of exposed caulking sandwiched between two-by-fours. In the center of the space, there’s a diminutive bar ripped from a Wild West saloon. Behind that is a backdrop of wallpaper with AK-47 motifs and butterflies spray-painted on using a stencil. If Bluegold is a sleek new cruise ship, LSXO is its crew quarters.
The difference between the two doesn’t end there. Pound-for-pound, the food at LSXO is cheaper than at Bluegold. And it’s all from an entirely separate menu that’s not only all Vietnamese, but also the window to the soul of its chef, Tin Vuong. Most important, every bite I had here was consistently wonderful.
Before opening up an eclectic array of restaurants across Los Angeles County with Blackhouse Hospitality Management, Vuong was the head cook at St. Regis and Sapphire. His flavors are undiluted, unfiltered and bold—full of herbs, fish-sauce funkiness and wickedly hot chile peppers. You get the feeling that if Vuong were to teach you Vietnamese, he’d start with the swear words. But to truly appreciate the food, you should already be fluent with the back strip malls of Little Saigon or at least open to its quirks. This cuisine is for insiders who already know where to get the best bún bò Hue and cá kho to.
When I ate Vuong’s hu tieu Nam Vang, the noodle soup I routinely slurp for breakfast at Trieu Chau, I realized Vuong has not only gotten the broth exactly right, but he’s also included everything I’ve come to expect from it: the pliant fish balls, the ground pork, the shrimp, even the deep-fried Chinese crullers you’re supposed to float atop the scalding liquid. But then he does something ballsy: He dumps the diced Thai bird chiles usually offered as a condiment into the soup itself. Vuong does it because he knows they are central to the experience, its spiciness building to a crescendo that leaves you gasping for air, but then going back for more.
There are a few updates to classic dishes here. But when Vuong does it, it’s not a forced deconstruction, but rather an improvement, an upgrade or a shortcut to the essence of the dish. For example, he adds not only lardons to that hu tieu broth for richness and smoke, but also a whole gigantic shrimp that might as well be a lobster. For his take on bún riêu, which is usually a noodle soup with crab and tomatoes, he eschews the noodles and the soup to get down to the heart of it: the crab cakes made with egg and crabmeat that he re-creates here as an omelet. And it’s a revelation, with a wiggly texture hovering near Japanese chawanmushi and a fried soft-shell crab on top.
On those dishes that can’t possibly be improved upon, such as bánh xèo—a lacy crepe-like pancake with shrimp and pork folded over bean sprouts—Vuong plays it straight. His rendition is every bit as crisp as anything I’ve found in Little Saigon, save for Van’s. He even attempts a nem noung cuon, which is not as tightly rolled as Brodard’s nor has the sauce to match. But that’s okay—no other restaurant has come close either.
There’s also an amazing braised pork and quail eggs in a coconut gravy that screams for a side of rice and a thin-sliced octopus terrine dribbled with chile sate sauce that’s as tender as turkey cold cuts from the deli. If you like seabass, it’s crisply fried here, paired with Vietnamese herbs and an electric dipping sauce.
As authentic as the food is, I would discourage anyone from bringing older Vietnamese relatives—unless they’re already deaf. The restaurant blasts old-school hip-hop that’s heavy on Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg—and not the G-rated radio edits, either. I don’t know exactly how old Vuong is, but my guess is he came of age with this music, just as I did. For LSXO’s customers between 35 and 45, it hits the nostalgic sweet spot. In the middle of my visit, I found my head bobbing to the baseline, then joining the entire restaurant in singing the chorus of “Gin and Juice.” Who knew that gangsta rap and Vietnamese food go great together? The O.G. Tin Vuong, that’s who.
LXSO, 21016 Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste. D200, Huntington Beach, (714) 374-0083; dinebluegold.com/lsxo. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$60. Full bar.
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.