Upon the debut of Take Out with Lisa Ling in 2022, I found myself enamored by the premise of the HBO docuseries. Each episode portrays award-winning journalist Ling visiting different Asian American restaurants, using food as a vehicle to discuss complex topics within the Asian diaspora.

Ling explores what it means to have a sense of belonging in America, the importance of building community and how people are sharing overlooked stories. The restaurants highlighted within this series were noticeably not fusion restaurants. Most were small businesses run by families like Little Saigon’s Phở 79 featured in Episode 3. Phở 79 is representative of most Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to – full of Vietnamese customers, small tables, and decades of history.

Nong Lá, located in Sawtelle Japantown, is a Vietnamese American spot that has found its niche within the modern restaurant industry with its trendy decor and vibrant marketing. When I first sat down, PinkPantheress and Ice Spice’s viral song, “Boy’s a liar Pt. 2” was playing throughout the cafe. (This was my first time hearing PinkPantheress play in a Vietnamese restaurant before.)

Siblings Elaine and Victor Phuong first opened the modern cafe in 2012. There is a second Nong Lá location on La Brea, and a third is scheduled to open in Downtown Culver City in February 2024. Much like Ling, I found myself eager to speak with Elaine to understand how food and culture interact within the Nong Lá kitchen.

Elaine Phuong graduated from University of California, Irvine as a sociology major and spent nearly a decade in advertising afterward. After becoming “sick” of advertising, she and her brother decided to open a restaurant, Phuong explained. The business is named after nón lá, the traditional Vietnamese cone-like hat made of woven leaves.

“We got really lucky and found a place and just really met good people that gave us opportunities, too. We were really lucky at the same time,” Phuong said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but you also have to have a lot of luck.”

Phuong explained that food has played a central role in how her family has conveyed affection since her childhood. Phuong’s mother is from Saigon – now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City – which is located in the southern region of Vietnam. According to Phuong, her family does not check on her by asking how her day went; instead, they ask if she has eaten yet.

“Technically all the recipes are from [my mother]. It’s how her tastebuds have tasted her country,” Phuong said. “We call ourselves cooks, right? We’re not chefs – I can’t make things up. A lot of Vietnamese food is very laborious, but she’s shown us how to do it and that’s why it’s from her to us to you.”

I began by ordering their chả giò (egg rolls) which come in orders of either three or five pieces. They were dark yet still golden, served alongside green leaf lettuce, mint, pickled carrots and daikon, and nước mắm (fish sauce). Wrapping the eggrolls with lettuce leaves and decorating it with other veggies helped create a balanced appetizer, a common practice in Vietnamese cuisine.

I found their bánh mì to be the most surprising dish that I tried at Nong Lá. House mayo, grilled pork, pickled carrots and daikon, and cilantro were layered atop an extremely crisp baguette. The meat’s smokiness and richness took priority within the flavor profile, a heavy contrast to bánh mì sandwiches with lighter flavors. The mix of fresh, cool veggies and such smoky pork was totally new to me. The sandwich was served in halves with slices of jalapeños on the side.

Nong Lá’s phở đặc biệt is known for its use of fresh phở noodles, creating a slightly different texture from typical dried noodles. The broth was light but comforting, an ideal base for the onions, herbs, and lemon to meet in. The various cuts of beef, meatballs, and tripe enriched the soup’s heartiness. Wedges of lime, slices of jalapeños, and bean sprouts were served on the side.

I am so used to eating my grandmother’s phở that it has unintentionally become what I envision when I think of the dish. It was exciting to surprise my brain and tastebuds a bit by trying Nong Lá’s unique renditions of such popular dishes. Even if some of the flavors and textures were unfamiliar to me, they are traditional to the family behind Nong Lá.

“I think it’s like feeling a sense of pride that you’re showing someone something different. You’re telling them, ‘Oh, this is how we eat it, and this is who we’re representing,’” Phuong said.

Phuong emphasized that authenticity means different things to different people, and Nong Lá’s food is entirely truthful to her family’s ways of cooking. The Phuongs are helping redefine Vietnamese food in America without ever departing from their upbringing. When a guest enters Nong Lá – Vietnamese or not – they’re given the opportunity to discover something new about our community through cuisine. I recommend anyone interested in fresh yet hearty meals to support the Phuongs by visiting one of Nong Lá’s locations.

Visual Credit: Julianne Le

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