Written By: Eric Wiener
Photography By: Matt Fukushima
Picture a kind-smiling Vietnamese woman with camouflage pants, a fashion degree, and red highlights in her hair. Imagine her at home in Asia, cooking meals for others at age nine, and then decades later, travelling across Europe amid a culinary pilgrimage. And finally, watch these eclectic qualities slowly blend into founder and executive chef Kimmy Tang’s already defined traditional mix of French and Vietnamese influences. More than anything else, it is this innovative, original presence that promulgates itself throughout her restaurants.
Following the success of the Beverly Hills namesake 90210Pho, Ms. Tang opened her second location in Westlake Village, and will be opening a third Orange County location this summer. Within the Westlake space, a fully exposed kitchen and carefully crafted industrial motif lands somewhere between the smart designs of urban outskirts and the safety found in primarily residential communities. Everything appears meticulously clean, colorful, and well placed.
“Every day I try to deposit one dollar in the universe bank,” Ms. Tang explains, leading into a story about her time volunteering as a cook at a Romanian orphanage. “Part of that is giving back and part is cooking food that gives my guests health and nutrients, not just filling them up.”
Rice paper holds together shrimp sautéed in lime leaves, chili peppers, and ginger in Ms. Tang’s version of a fresh roll. Rather than traditional cold noodles, she substitutes chilled cucumber to cut down on carbs and keep the appetizer lighter. Jicama and mixed greens add a little more crunch. Sticking to the healthy motif, handmade chicken potstickers fulfill a slightly heartier craving however. Pan fried in olive oil and served with a soy vinaigrette, these dumplings balance lean chicken, palpable garlic, and minced bok choy beneath a narrow breading. They’re soft and mushy to the touch but have an interior consistency that holds up under multiple dippings or a storm of sriracha.
Seared and minced beef wrapped in vine leaves atop mixed greens and fried spring rolls concealing pulled crab, shrimp, chicken, taro, shallots, and tree ear mushrooms begin to diverge from the more commonplace offerings. Green peas, corn, tomato, onion, celery, eggs, and lean chicken breast fill out one of the healthier version of fried rice to ever exist. Stir fry entrees employ the minimum amount of oil, packed vegetables among the rice, and only cook for three minutes to maintain as many vitamins and minerals as possible.
9021Pho’s namesake soups stick to the concept as well, featuring light, salty broths accompanied by fresh basil, limes, chili sauce, and even sliced jalapenos. Served in a lively orange colored citrus sauce, sweet chili chicken tightly packs bread crumbs around thin strips of meat; onion and bell peppers add a touch of sour and walnuts and sesame seeds provide even more texture.
Ms. Tang’s two best dishes cater to opposite crowds. If you’re into having flavors accentuated by red jalapeno chilies, the spicy n’ sour soup twists tom yong soup on its coconut based head. Lemongrass and tamarind combine with intense chilies in an elaborate broth that unfolds like the pacing of a novel. Various chapters include miniature shrimp, pieces of sole, straw mushrooms, baby corn, and bok choy, while a recurring character named sweet pineapple cools sporadic bites. Sake, wine, and VBL Tien Giang Limited’s “33” beer also help soothe any overzealous palates.
For those preferring sweet and savory to spicy and sour, a breaded and fried filet of sole offers their most well-paved route. A French aioli provides a candy-like overture followed by a faintly spicy finale, qualities along the lines of what one might hope to stumble upon when popping in and out of tiny storefronts in Little Saigon. The sole’s genius lies in creating indifference as to whether it comes served in a paper wrapper off a street cart or on fine china with a prestigious view. Both would be acceptable, and neither more fitting.
The French and Middle Eastern rooted sorbets come last and in the form of sweet, icy mango, tropical papaya and a pure white, heavily aromatic coconut. They’re served on the half shell within their respective fruit of origin.
As she simultaneously blends homemade sauces and unexpected culinary cultures, Kimmy Tang talks about her food, dreams, and notably fortunate life. But to her more than the rest of us, there’s no delineation between any of the three.
30990 Russell Ranch Road
Westlake Village, CA 91362