Little Tokyo Restaurant Brings Southeast Asian Dining to Downtown

by LA Downtown News, May 20, 2011

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – When you walk into The Spice Table in Little Tokyo, there are a few key dos and don’ts.

First, do take your time before sitting down and get a good whiff of the wood-burning oven. It will make you feel like you’re at a backyard barbecue or a campfire.

Second, don’t expect any barbecue fare. Instead, be ready to taste a blend of Southeast Asian dishes from a young chef who’s digging into his family roots and who recently opened his first restaurant after years of working at celebrated eateries.

Third, and most importantly, definitely don’t hold the anchovies.

Located in the former Cuba Central space in a 100-year-old building in Little Tokyo, The Spice Table is a reflection of its creators, 34-year-old chef Bryant Ng and his 33-year-old wife Kim Luu-Ng (who is also an attorney). The 2,000-square-foot restaurant opened in March.

The decor is young, modern Downtown, with high ceilings, exposed brick walls, vintage bird cages hanging above the tables and music from alternative bands like REM playing in the background. The cuisine, meanwhile, is a mix of the couple’s heritage, with dishes from his native Singapore and her Vietnamese homeland.

There is also somewhat of a restaurant pedigree. Ng is a San Fernando Valley native whose parents owned a popular Chinese restaurant called Wok This Way. He studied molecular biology and business administration at UCLA and worked as a consultant for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in San Francisco until he realized the kitchen was his calling.

“I always loved to cook but didn’t know I would actually love working in the kitchen,” he said.

After taking a course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, he realized he could take the heat and the kitchen. He returned to the Bay Area and began working at a French restaurant called La Folie. He later did time at places including Restaurant Daniel in New York and Campanile in Los Angeles. Most recently he worked with Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali when he helped open and served as chef-de-cuisine of Pizzeria Mozza in Hollywood.

The Spice Table is the couple’s first solo restaurant. They chose the Little Tokyo location at 114 S. Central Ave. because of the area’s young, food-loving population.

“We chose Downtown mainly because we realize the people who are eating here were kind of our people, our demographic, and we basically wanted to open a restaurant that we would eat at,” Ng said.

The Standouts

During lunch, The Spice Table leans toward its Vietnamese side. One standout sandwich is the cold cut banh mi ($7.50). It’s a big meal with pork, pork-liver pate and headcheese, housemade ham, pickled carrots and daikon, Vietnamese mint, cilantro and jalapeños.

“It’s a traditional Vietnamese sandwich but I wanted to elevate it by doing all of the charcuterie in house and using these better ingredients,” Ng said.

The vegetables and pickled ingredients lift the heaviness off the pate and ham, adding freshness to the sandwich while still letting the flavors of the meat stand out. It’s filling without being overwhelming.

The chicken in the chicken banh mi ($7) is marinated overnight in spices, then grilled. The sandwich includes lemongrass, pickled shallots, garlic mayo, scallions, watercress and peanut sauce.

The sandwich has a nice, even spiciness and the scallions add a subtle onion flavor. The watercress delivers a peppery taste that balances the heavy dark chicken meat and the richness of the peanut sauce.

At dinner, Ng relies heavily on his wood-burning oven. Here, he focuses on traditional dishes from Singapore, including satays, a traditional skewer that comes with a spicy peanut sauce.

“Satays were one of my first taste memories,” Ng said. “I would see the cooks sitting there fanning the fires and I remember the aromas.”

Customers can often see Ng doing the same thing as he fans the flames while preparing the five types he offers at The Spice Table. One of the most popular is the lamb belly ($10).

The wood-burning hearth gives the meat a smoky flavor. It’s a bit dry, but that is easily remedied by dipping it in the spicy peanut sauce, which is made with charred chiles. While traditional peanut sauce is more aggressive and sweeter, Ng’s mild version complements the grilled meat without taking over the flavor.

Another dinner dish, the koh loh mee (dried mixed noodles, $12), has a surprising kick. While fish sauce is a common ingredient in many Vietnamese recipes, most people may not guess exactly what makes this dish stand out.

The plate is prepared with egg noodles that are tossed in a broth of anchovies and chiles and garnished with ground pork that is cooked slow, almost like a Bolognese. Ng uses pork belly for its fatty flavor.

“We take a ton of tiny anchovies and we take this broth and we mix it with oyster sauce and it’s a very flavorful component,” Ng said.

The anchovy broth adds an appealing heaviness to the dish.

“It’s a very multi-layered dish,” Kim said. “It’s deceptive so when people look at it they think it’s very familiar, but when they try it they’re often surprised at the layers of flavor.”

The anchovies are also the unexpected star of Ng’s beef rendang ($16), essentially a dried beef curry. Ng uses a beef short rib served over jasmine rise with a peanut and anchovy mix that’s wok fried with a ginger and garlic paste.

The anchovies are slightly salty and add a bit of fishy flavor and texture when mixed with the meat. The peanut and anchovy mix alone could easily be served as a bar food snack.

Since Ng is now preparing dishes that are closer to his heritage than the Italian meals he was making at Pizzeria Mozza, he and Kim have been inundated in the flavors of Southeast Asia.

But every once in a while, the couple admits, they do still crave a simple pasta.