Satay, Sauce and the Future of The Spice Table
by KCET, April 5, 2012
At the corner of 1st and Central, chef Bryant Ng stokes the flames that rise from the wood and charcoal on his beloved grill. A year ago, Ng handpicked this Little Tokyo location, built in the 1890s, for the special ambiance he knew he could create inside these rustic brick walls. The result is The Spice Table.
His Southeast Asian menu features the Singaporean flavors of his childhood, with influences from his wife Kim’s Vietnamese heritage. Ng’s passion for food, especially the satays he enjoyed as a boy during visits to Singapore, inspired the design of the custom grill that flanks the counter, giving diners an up-close view of the action. Ng’s creations have led to his being named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs for 2012.
However, recently Ng was informed that the property might be in jeopardy. The building he loves so much sits on land slated to be part of a Metro project that would result in the demolition of The Spice Table, Weiland Brewery and Señor Fish. So what will Ng do if The Spice Table needs to move? He answered that question and many others while grocery shopping, setting up the grill, and cooking satays.
Julie: Where did you find this grill?
Bryant: I got the grill from Wood Stone. They call this the Robata Grill. I wanted to have one specifically built for making satays. I worked with them to develop what we have here now. The traditional method is a shallow box — you put coal in there, and there are grates on top. We tried several designs and came up with this one, which I love. The back has traditional grill grates, and the front is utilized for satay grilling.
When I was thinking about this restaurant, this was a centerpiece of what I wanted to do. I really wanted to do satays because it reminds me of my childhood when I would visit Singapore. There was a place called the Satay Club. We would go there to see them cooking the satays on these little grills. It fills the air with smoke and aroma.
Satays are meat skewers. Traditionally in Singapore, you see a lot of chicken, mutton, and pork. I would love to do mutton, but it’s hard to find in the States. So I do lamb. That’s how the lamb belly one came about. It’s so fatty and juicy, and when you throw it on the grill it really caramelizes.
Julie: How did you develop the lunch menu?
Bryant: Number one, I love sandwiches. I am a bread person at heart. The type of sandwiches I make are influenced by the traditional bánh mi of Vietnam. The bread is very important. It needs to by crispy on the outside and light in the middle. It’s made from quick doughs that are buttery and not chewy. I think they serve as a beautiful vehicle for everything else. We were fortunate to have met somebody who is a third-generation Vietnamese baker. His family has been baking baguettes in Vietnam for 300 years. He comes in everyday and bakes our bread for us, about 80-100 loaves.
Julie: The city says this land is part of an upcoming Metro project. What have they told you about the building so far?
Bryant: According to their current plan, it’s going to take over our space as well as Weiland Brewery, Señor Fish and the parking lot. It’s called the Regional Connector.
Julie: Did they give you any indication of when they think that might happen?
Bryant: It’s my understanding that the vote has been postponed. They have not contacted me with specific plans for relocation. They are still discussing if this is the final scenario, and they still need more funding for the project.
Julie: If you were told that the building was going to be demolished in one year, what would be your plan?
Bryant: For me, The Spice Table restaurant as it is can only exist in this building. I think there is a certain vibe and ambiance that you can only create in this specific space. If they tell me that it’s gone and I open another place, it is not going to be called The Spice Table. There may be reminisces of it, but I can never open a Spice Table again. Its soul lives here.
Julie: So even if Spice Table could stay here forever, you wouldn’t plan to open a second Spice Table?
Bryant: That doesn’t mean I’m not going to open another restaurant, but it won’t be The Spice Table.
Julie: And the grill goes with you wherever you go?
Bryant: Yeah, wherever they’ll let me set it up. I love this grill.
Julie: Since this space is relatively small, would you look for a larger space?
Bryant: Absolutely. Right now we are kind of limited — especially on Fridays and Saturdays — with the number of people we can serve. Unfortunately, sometimes people are turned away, which I hate.
Julie: When you look for a larger space, what will you be looking for?
Bryant: I would love to have a space that still has a rustic feel to it. Brick walls — that’s part of the aesthetic that I like, mainly because to me it’s very comfortable. I’d like it to be homey and warm with a fireplace and my grill. If I need to find another place, hopefully it can capture some of that.
Julie: What originally drew you to this space that made you excited to come to work?
Bryant: Number one was the neighborhood. Little Tokyo has a very nice neighborhood vibe. I started coming to Little Tokyo many years ago and saw this building. It was painted at the time. You could not really see its true beauty, but it looked appealing. There is parking. There is foot traffic outside. The type of people who spend time in Little Tokyo are similar to me and my wife Kim. I wanted to open a place in a neighborhood I understood as a patron and as a guest. What’s great about the area is the camaraderie among the businesses and restaurants. You don’t always see that.
Julie: So every day, when you arrive at The Spice Table and start cooking, what goes through your mind about the future of the restaurant?
Bryant: I am the type of person that good things and bad things happen to in life. I just try to figure it out and make the best out of it. Maybe it’s opening a door. I don’t know why this is happening right now, but it’s probably for a better reason. The city still needs the funding. It’s a $1.3 billion dollar project.
It’s not just me — it’s my entire staff. We are all so invested in what we do here. But we can carry on. That’s the beauty of it. I know that for us, if this happens, we can pack up. We are resourceful enough to land of our feet.
If you take The Spice Table out of the equation and look at all of the other mom-and-pop shops around here, what’s going to happen to them? What’s going to happen to the flavor of Little Tokyo? They are going to close the inlets into Little Tokyo. The mom-and-pop shops that are the soul of Little Tokyo, what are they going to do? Will they survive the years of construction? It is going to impact the entire area. We are talking about an entire change of neighborhood, not just The Spice Table.
Ng can be found at the family-owned A Grocery Warehouse on Sunset Boulevard almost as often as he’s at his restaurant. Ng walks up and down the aisles, sharing tips about his favorite ingredients and how he builds layers of flavors in each dish. Not just any fish sauce will make its way into The Spice Table menu.
In the produce section, Ng points to the Kaffir lime leaves he uses in a lime custard with lychee cream, the Pandan leaves for Kaya toast, Laksa leaf (rau răm), Vietnamese mint, and Vietnamese coriander, sometimes called culantro (ngo gai) for the pig’s tail salad. While buying live catfish, he recommends looking for the most active fish in the tank, noting that they are healthier and thus taste better.
Ng’s grocery list:
Viet Huong Fish Sauce — Noticing the difference in fish sauce prices, Ng pointed out “you get what you pay for.”
Pearl River Bridge Soy Sauce — The dark sauce is thicker and has an appealing bitterness.
Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce — Ng’s advice is to “buy the premium.” The one with the boy and mother on the label is more complex than the panda bottle.
Maggi Sauce — This type of soy sauce is great on eggs. Ng also shakes a dash onto the cold cut sandwich.
Tropics Coconut Vinegar — This multi-purpose vinegar from The Philippines is lower in acid. Ng uses it in many dishes, including his chicken wing marinade.
Koon Chun Fine Shrimp Sauce — Ng puts this sauce in The Spice Table burger and on rib eye to add umami flavor.
Kadoya Dark Sesame Oil — This oil is aggressive in flavor; Ng never uses a lot.
Deliamore Palm Sugar — This palm sugar has a complex, caramel, raisin-like flavor that rounds out a dish.
Maltose — Maltose is a key ingredient in chasu pork. At The Spice Table, they make chasu in-house with Neiman pork belly.
Mae Ploy — This creamy coconut milk has a good amount of fat.
For The Spice Table menu, Ng tested four brands of rice before deciding on Buddha for the texture. Ng cooks it al dente.
Back at The Spice Table, Ng fans the flames at the grill and begins to prepare skewers of lamb belly and chicken thighs with skin. While dipping them into the house-made spicy peanut sauce, he watches the staff preparing for dinner service. Whether The Spice Table team can stay in their Little Tokyo home for six months or six years, only time will tell. One thing seems certain — Ng will find a way to transport the soul of the place wherever he fires up his grill.
[Photos by Amy Tierney.]