Welcome to Dining On A Dime a feature in which Eater surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you want us to go next? Do share.
There's a theory that's often applicable to ethnic dining in LA: The more difficult the pronunciation of the restaurant name, the better the food. Witness Meizhou Dongpo, Lum Ka Naad, Itzik Hagadol, Pho Thanh Lich, and, of course, Mumbai Ki Galliyon Se. Nha Hang Lu in El Monte straddles the median in terms of linguistics requirements, but the food clearly spells out Vietnamese comfort.
Patty Lu is the matriach behind the Nha Hang Lu outfit. Instead of dishing out duck calls a la Duck Dynasty, Nha Hang Lu sends out bowl after bowl of soul-warming bun rieu, the proprietress's favorite dish on the menu. The MO of Nha Hang Lu is rather simple: establish a base in a low-cost strip mall (randomly found via drive-by), serve hearty Sino-Vietnamese fare at reasonable (but not rock bottom) prices to as many people in the neighborhood as possible. The Lu clans choses to reach out to the mixed community of South El Monte hence the menu is printed in Vietnamese, Chinese, and English. There is talk of changing the name to a pleasant-sounding "Auntie Lu's Kitchen" as El Monte is still predominantly Hispanic and the ex-Saigonese proprietors are perfectly aware they are the new neighbors in the city.
Food at Nha Hang Lu is as simple as the pithy menu: bun rieu (crab noodle soup), bo kho (carrot beef stew) served with various carbs, bun bo Hue (Central Vietnamese style spicy beef noodle stew), Hainan chicken rice, and cubed filet mignon rice, are some of the highlights. No dish exceeds $7, no dish leaves visitors hungry. For fermentation fiends, ask for a side of funked shrimp paste with the bun rieu. Make sure you gargle with mouthwash before meeting the date for a night cap. For those who enjoy a slow but brilliant burn that Sriracha can never afford, request the house green chili paste. Dabble the Hainan chicken gingerly in the chili paste, followed by a brief dip in the fish sauce, for a powerful one-two funky punch that may never be found in Downtown Los Angeles.
Many have touted the friendliness of the staff here because the staff is family, or is dating Mrs. Lu's daughter. The clients may have attended the same college as the guy dating the daughter. All this translates to customers never actually having to request shrimp paste or the chili paste; the staff treats you like family, and like familly, you'll always be offered the secret condiment. The only twist in the restaurant's menu is the xiu mai banh mi. This isn't a Vietnamese sandwich, even though there is a Vietnamese bolillo involved. Think of it as a deconstructed Bay Cities meatball sandwich, with pure pork balls instead, and no cloying fennel.
Pro-tip: Get the off-menu strong chrysanthemum tea to go with the garlic shrimp (or Hainan chicken rice). The Chinese-inflected menu pairs with tea better than the typical Vietnamese coffee.
· More Dining on a Dime in the SGV Coverage [~ELA~]