Amidst the slew of Italian ristorantes and gastropubs lining Culver City’s “restaurant row” is a new eaterie that draws in both nearby theater-goers and mid-20’s hipsters with its communal-style seating and colorful plating.
This is East Borough, a Vietnamese-fusion restaurant with emphasis on “fusion.” What began as a small, street food-oriented venture in Costa Mesa has expanded into the Culver City location with a vaster and more varied menu, offering everything from Imperial Rolls to tamarind-glazed Lamb Ribs.
There’s no pretense that the “Pho Baguette” – a brisket-filled bahn mi paired with “side car pho” for dipping – is authentic. Those who are looking to be transported to Saigon will be horrified to find bucatini noodles and oxtail in their aptly-named “Phocatini” (just be sure not to say it with kids around).
What you will find at East Borough, though, is a celebration of Vietnamese textures and flavors, from crisped, star anise-braised pork belly to the crunchy, sweet papaya salad. Tangy nuoc mam is a frequent accompaniment for dip-able dishes, and you’ll find yourself reaching for the garlicky sambal chili sauce more than once during your meal. Plastic chop sticks and serving spoons abound on every table and the waiters will encourage family-style ordering to allow each diner to experience a wider range of traditional Vietnamese flavors.
Like with most Asian-inspired casual restaurants, the chefs at East Borough are a bit heavy-handed with the seasoning. There isn’t a white grain of rice in the hoisin-laden Fried Rice, and simply looking at the sodium content in the Salt & Pepper Squid is enough to raise your blood pressure. But overall, the flavors work well, complementing each other to create a tantalizing sweet-sour-salty dance.
The best example of this excellent flavor pairing is likely the Crispy Roasted Trout, which arrives at the table whole but deboned on a mound of sambal-infused jasmine rice. The fish, with its crispy skin and tender interior, is seemingly marinated by the sweetness of ripe pineapple sections and the saltiness of sliced anchovies that sit atop it. A slightly-sour vinaigrette dresses the trout along with earthy bloomsdale spinach and crisp red chiles. The rice is what brings it all together, soaking up all the aforementioned juices and adding in just enough sambal zing to keep dining parties fighting for bites. Authentic? Maybe not, although it resembles a traditional fish soup called canh chua ca. Complex? Absolutely.
Craft cocktails also include tastes of Southeast Asia, with thai basil, sriracha salt, pomelo, and something called “chocolate chili bitters” incorporated into the drinks. It may not be what you expected to drink after a show at the Kirk Douglas Theater, but if you just accompanied your wife to “50 Shades of Grey: The Musical,” it’ll certainly do.