Vietnamese comfort food in a hip space

The menu at Vien Cafe is simple and concise.

When the Vietnamese cafe Indochine Vien opened a couple of weeks ago, the tall stockpot filled with steaming pho broth still wore its price sticker. The owners and the crew of smiling, unflappable waiters in black T-shirts were in the weeds, as they say. None of them expected the kind of crowds they were getting. Or at least not so soon.

But somehow the word was out. Vien Cafe fills the bill on many levels. Prices are low; nothing on the current menu breaks $7. And the cafe stays open all through the afternoon until 10 or 11 at night, perfect for urbanites who like to eat at odd hours. Just heard your stomach growling and it's nowhere close to the regular lunch hour?

Head to Vien Cafe for an order of spring rolls, a bowl of pho or an overstuffed banh mi sandwich. The menu is simple and concise, basically Vietnamese appetizers, pho with various garnishes, cold noodle dishes, a few rice bowls and one stew. I love that the fried spring rolls come out so hot they'll scorch your fingers if you don't eat them the traditional way, wrapped in a leaf of lettuce with sprigs of fresh mint.

The owners are hip to the neighborhood, so they've got vegetarian versions of the fresh (unfried) and the fried spring rolls. For my taste, the all-vegetable rolls are a little wan. I much prefer the ones filled with ground chicken, shrimp and crab along with a little taro root and carrot. Or the fresh spring rolls with grilled chicken, shrimp and rice noodles in a wrapper so fine you can read the bright coral of the shrimp through it. Banh xeo — mung bean and coconut milk crepes filled with a mix of shrimp and chicken, tofu and onions — make a wonderful pick-me-up too.

There's an all-vegetable version, of course. The pho is pretty good itself, the broth fragrant and clear. Though the number of choices doesn't begin to approach the myriad permutations of the soup on offer at pho houses in Westminster or the San Gabriel Valley, a bowl of steaming pho spells instant comfort. I like No. 8, which slips slices of rare steak, beef brisket and meatballs in with the noodles.z

Vien Cafe already has some regulars ensconced on a barstool for some pho, or sipping a Vietnamese coffee or iced tea while waiting for their take-out order. The place has a hip but warm vibe. With some deft paint work in a palette of bright colors and a faux bamboo forest, they've managed to turn a nondescript storefront locale into something lively and inviting.

Oh, that woman in the baseball cap cooking behind the scene? That's the two owners' mom and Indochine Vien's head cook. No wonder this tastes like comfort food, Vietnamese style.

By S. Irene Virbila,
Times Staff Writer