R: Sometimes, a tiny little ethnic café, often considered a hole-in-the-wall joint, can offer its patrons a unique dining experience that the larger restaurants cannot equal. Dinner at China Beach Vietnamese Bistro is akin to sitting at a table in someone's kitchen. It's cozy--very cozy.
Z: China Beach is a café tucked into a corner strip mall on Pacific Ave. and North Venice Blvd. one block from Venice beach. With its limited capacity of six to eight tables, the bistro was bustling with a loyal following of hip young diners who were eating in or waiting for take out. The phone rang often with take-out orders while the kitchen produced a steady stream of chop, sizzle, scrape, clunk, and clink sound effects.
R: Because it was a blustery night, we decided to eat inside closer to the kitchen rather than on the somewhat enclosed patio that sported colorful lanterns and twinkle lights. The one server, Henry, deserves our commendation for maintaining his cool while dashing from the kitchen to the tables to the phone to the cash register. Henry did it all, yet was full of smiles and pleasant conversation when plied with our many questions.
Z: Joined by our friends Joan and Larry, we were delighted to discover 11 vegetarian dishes that comprised the backside of the menu. We ordered all four of the appetizers, though we weren't sure if they would fit on our two, miniscule, distressed wooden tables. Fortunately, they arrived separately, giving us time to savor each fully. First to grace our table was #20 Goi Cuon Chay, two traditional Vietnamese soft rice paper rolls filled with strips of warm seasoned tofu and gluten ham, rice noodles, shredded carrots, and lettuce. These were served with a spicy, thick, and flavorful peanut sauce for dipping.
R: The #21 Cha Gio Chay consisted of three deep-fried rolls stuffed with gluten ham and tofu and bore a close resemblance to taquitos with their crispy covering and soft inside. The sensation of the evening was the #22 La Lot Chay, grilled rolls of gluten ham and marinated tofu wrapped with bright green la lot leaves, brushed with sesame oil, and charbroiled. Several of these rolls were threaded together onto skewers to create a rather dramatic appearance. The grill flavor really came through and fully complimented the delicate la lot leaves.
Z: Henry had the scoop on the la lot leaves that come from Southeast Asia and are somewhat related to betel leaves. They're delicate in flavor and texture, yet remain firm without turning mushy. They made the perfect wrapping for the appetizer that was accompanied with a salad of shredded iceberg lettuce and carrots topped with a garnish of basil leaves.
R: While total informality prevails at the bistro, Henry kept us well supplied with proper dishes and utensils, though we could have chosen to use the chop sticks tucked into the metal utensil holder at the table. Each table also held a napkin dispenser, a bottle of hot sauce, soy sauce, and a vase with a single stalk of tiny purple orchids in bloom.
Z: Our fourth appetizer, #23 Goi Ga Chay, was a refreshing salad served in a large, shallow white bowl and consisted of a generous mound of shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, chopped fresh mint and basil complimented with a tasty, light rice vinegar and sesame dressing. Topping the salad bed were strips of marinated tofu and gluten ham that nearly covered the entire salad.
R: We followed our unique appetizers with two entrees that made sharing a blast. The #27 Bun Tom Xao Chay (We can't pronounce it either--just go with the numbers!) and #29 Canh Chua Chay. The #27 featured cold bun noodles combined with a salad of chopped cucumbers, shredded carrots, lettuce, and chopped peanuts. Sautéed veggie shrimps provided the centerpiece of the dish that we dressed with a light sprinkle of soy sauce.
Z: Soups are so synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine that no meal would seem complete without a steaming bowl of pho, pronounced "fuh." The #29 Canh Chua Chay was a delightful vegetarian version of pho that usually has a base of chicken or beef broth and noodles. Ours had a mouthwatering sweet and sour vegetable base with chunks of tomatoes, pineapple, slices of shiitake mushrooms, tofu strips, gluten ham, veggie shrimps, and bean sprouts.
R: Henry was glad to accommodate us when we asked him to suggest a dish that had hot noodles. To accompany our soup he brought us hot pho noodles that are thicker and stickier than the bun noodles featured in our salad and rice paper rolls. The noodles were the perfect pairing with the delicious soup.
Z: The finishing touch to our meal was sharing a young coconut. Our four straws and four spoons were busily engaged sipping the sweet coconut water and scooping super-soft, delicately sweet coconut flesh down to the bare shell.
R: In spite of its informality and bustling atmosphere, China Bistro can boast two plusses--relaxed coziness and tasty homestyle food. Though we've just discovered the restaurant, this family owned business has been in operation for two years and is planning to expand in the next few months.
Z: The other side of the menu contains a large selection of non-veg dishes, making the restaurant an ideal place to enjoy with friends who prefer to dine on non-compassionate foods. Prices are reasonable with dinner for four under fifty dollars. The one issue that surprised us was that they did not have a restroom for the patrons. Instead, the owners have an agreement with a restaurant down the street that allows China Beach Bistro customers to use their restrooms.
China Beach Vietnamese Bistro
Reviewed February 2006