Porridge and Puffs has been years in the making, drawing accolades from the late Jonathan Gold when it was still a pop-up in Hollywood back in 2014. After closing that pop-up and looking for a permanent home for the restaurant, founder Minh Phan reopened in late August on a prime corner of Historic Filipinotown, which mostly centers around a short stretch of Beverly Boulevard. While the restaurant clearly focuses on Asian porridge inflected with market ingredients, Minh isn’t limiting the menu to just pretty-looking congee and savory youtiao crullers. Toward the end of 2018, Eater awarded Porridge and Puffs the Best Neighborhood Restaurant in Los Angeles.
Food & Wine hailed the Historic Filipinotown as LA’s next great dining neighborhood, with new restaurants like Woon, Ragtop Fern’s, and Doubting Thomas joining the likes of Genever cocktail bar, Tactile coffee, and Valerie Confections. Here now, Eater sits down with Phan to talk about listening to the neighborhood, balancing her ambitions with the realities of running an independent restaurant, and future plans for the space.
On adapting Porridge and Puffs to the neighborhood: “It takes a while to become a neighborhood restaurant. You have to price things here so they’re able to eat often. The food has to be craveable. The restaurant has to be the kind of place where people can come and hang out. Initially, the food wasn’t as familiar for the neighborhood, so we had to listen a little bit more. We’ll expand the menu once we catch up with operations. I want to add more fermented things. Another salad. Maybe something with bread. Dinner is a totally different ballgame. We can kind of cook whatever we want for dinner, like Asian pasta, a bunch of specials. We only have six burners in the kitchen though.”
On balancing her own inventiveness with the needs of a neighborhood establishment: “It’s been challenging trying to introduce new items when we’re already really busy with the solid menu that we’re working with. I always want to do things that push the envelope.”
On the challenge of getting people to love a chicken porridge: “It takes so many words
sometimes just to explain what chicken porridge is. This is just really good food. We’re making the best chicken porridge that we can, just changing out a flower or an herb quietly. I feel like we’ve been misrepresented as a fancy place, but we’re just trying to make the best chicken porridge.”
On why she chose Historic Filipinotown instead of Chinatown: “I love this neighborhood. When we opened it was a thoughtful decision to look in this area. We looked in Mount Washington, which is adjacent to Highland Park, and close to Silver Lake. We make it a conscious effort to call this neighborhood HiFi, or Historic Filipinotown. I dig this area. It’s for us Asian-Americans. Even though there’s Chinatown, there’s so much controversy there and frankly I didn’t want to get into that. Chinatown was too close — it’s a Yelp disaster for me. Everyone always wanted me to go to Chinatown. It’s so hot. It’s so happening. And I love going to Chinatown. I think we would get skewered if we opened in Chinatown.”
On the sometimes unfair comparisons between Porridge and Puffs and the SGV: “I think our food is very feminine. It takes a minute extra to explain. It’s not easy or immediately accessible, but that’s what people want us to be. If we were in Chinatown, people wouldn’t take a moment to compare us to an SGV congee or jook. That’s what I grew up with but if you compare us to that then you’re missing the point.”
On the growth of Historic Filipinotown and being part of the new wave of restaurants: Tactile [Coffee] was here. As was Valerie and Genever. We knew this place was going to grow in a thoughtful way. I don’t like the way Highland Park grew so fast. For us, people are going to accuse us of gentrification. There have always been Asian-Americans in this community, and now those kids are growing up. And now they’re opening businesses. I think that’s pretty cool.”
On the problem of porridge prices, at least for aggressive self-hating Yelpers: “We get a lot of self-hating racists. They don’t think we deserve it. ‘This porridge is so expensive!,’ they say. ‘Porridge should not be so expensive,’ they say, but all our research shows our prices are a great value. With the ingredients we use, the margins are just tiny. If I call this a risotto (and our stuff is pound for pound more expensive than arborio rice), we could charge three times more and no one would care. We get a lot of self-hating racist Asian Yelpers.”
On fighting the problem of overhype: “There’s always that first wave of criticism. There are people who don’t even eat here. We purposefully don’t publish the menu because you’re not going to get anything from reading the menu. The more I’ve been holding back, the more I don’t want us to be overhyped. I think you should have your own experience. Our food is so personal.”
On the difficulty of running a small, independent restaurant: “I want to make sure every element is good, that everything is tight. We’re trying to serve everything fast, delicious, and hot. That’s what I spend my living doing. Our business plan is horrible. Our labor cost is outrageous. It’s double or triple what the industry standard would be. It’s the same with our food costs. But we don’t owe any money. “
On the next steps for Porridge and Puffs: “I feel like this place will grow, bend, and evolve in many ways. That’s what I’m excited about every day. We want to make this a flexible space. We can either go more casual or way more experimental. I could do 15 course dinners here, because the space allows me to do that. And we’re hoping to get a beer and wine license eventually.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.