If ever held to gunpoint, I would probably relent and confess that Southeast Asian cuisine is indeed my favorite. But that doesn’t mean I’m a complete pushover when it comes to lemongrass, fish sauce, ginger and chilies. In fact my expectations only heighten with every attempt at that very delicate balance between spicy, sour, sweet, salty, nutty and citrusy. Very few toques do it well, but California native chef Tin Vuong’s unapologetic approach to the flavors of his heritage is nothing short of a Cirque du Soleil Big Top extravaganza for the taste buds.
Vuong’s third restaurant Little Sister is rather quizzically located in sleepy Manhattan Beach, (not exactly the food capital of Southern California) but his following is far reaching and his reputation is deservedly growing.
The room is framed in concrete, glass and wine with antique cobbler lamps and vintage schoolroom chairs that feel cool and eclectic yet utterly comfortable for the task at hand.
The menu is vast, comprehensive and rather daunting for the beach crowd in search of something “simple without cilantro” or “not too spicy”. And in addition to the borderline ebullient wait staff recommendations, you are summarily warned that the food arrives when the food arrives!
The first to appear were two of the Eastside 626 Provisions (the area code for the densely Vietnamese San Gabriel valley area): crispy and minty Fried Okra with tomato, lime and fenugreek and the sweet and tangy Ma La Pickles with Szechuan peppercorns and crushed peanuts, a gentle warm-up for the sharp ginger tamarind Duck Sate kebabs over caramelized pear chunks with almonds.
The tandoori-styled Grilled Prawns with lemongrass-cilantro tossed green papaya, mango and cashews was the perfect curtain-raiser for the x.o. Pea Tendrils with a shock of lime and the deep, dark ocean flavor of dried scallops. Next to arrive was the Kima Platha, an ultra thin crispy flatbread envelope stuffed with mint and chili infused lamb surrounded by a sea of curried lentil dipping sauce.
And for the most daring act of the evening (preluded with shell bowl and steaming towels): the show-stopping and utterly delicious Salt n Pepper Lobster. Sectioned and cracked in advance of being flash-fried with seasoned panko, the crustacean pieces are then wok fried with a bright and merry medley of shallots and chilies to engulf their flavors both shell-side and flesh-side. And for an encore, any remaining lobster meat is then returned to the kitchen for a crispy jasmine rice stir-fry with strips of smoky Thai pork sausage. Neither the quirky choices for a trio of desserts and gelatos, nor the equally arbitrary French cheese selection could dampen this culinary standing ovation.