One of Los Angeles’s oldest bars has been reborn thanks to a plucky team whose members first met in Shanghai. The Airliner, from chef Vinh Nguyen and Gary Wang, originally opened in Lincoln Heights almost 100 years ago as a side bar to the long-closed steakhouse next door. At least that’s the story the landlord, who’s owned the property with her late husband since 1984, told Nguyen when he acquired the space earlier this year.
After closing in late February 2023 and undergoing an interior refresh before reopening last week, the Airliner looks mostly like its old self — dim dive bar styling with some new circular mirrors that make it resemble the inside of a plane. Inspired by the team’s time collaborating on Shanghai nightlife spots, the new Airliner has a snack-worthy menu with some delightful Asian influences, notably at a price point that’s very attainable in a changing neighborhood.
The 80-year-old curved wooden bar has also been cleaned up and given a new shine, with new leather padding added beneath the barstools. Nguyen said multiple layers of paint, varnish, and leather showed decades upon decades of work to the bar. The tacky colors have been covered with a tasteful pale blue patterned wallpaper, but otherwise, the edges still sport a weathered look. This isn’t a full remodel, just a spruce-up job in the best way possible.
There bigger changes are on the menu, with Nguyen morphing the basic pub offering to delightful Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes that are rather remarkable, especially for the area. Think a $10 chicken liver pate that’s worth scraping the bottom of the bowl for, served with crunchy seasonal pickles made in the tiny kitchen. A fresh citrus salad blends herbs and nuoc cham for a Vietnamese-style starter. Hunan barbecue pork, a recipe that Nguyen uses as a trade chip with other chefs, sports a juicy interior and a lightly fried exterior, coated with chile oil. Nguyen traded the rib recipe (usually made with lamb, but using pork at the Airliner to keep it modestly priced) for the Japanese potato salad, served in al dente cubes and seasoned with konbu broth, wakame, mustard, pickled garlic stems, and a mound of feathery bonito flakes.
Shanghai triple onion noodles look dead simple but the length to which the sweet and comforting flavors are melded in shows lots of cooking finesse. Nguyen said a late-night vendor in Shanghai that kept him nourished was the main inspiration for this dish. Chongqing chicken wings should appeal to anyone who wants to graduate from Buffalo Wild Wings. But really, nothing is too challenging or fussy; Nguyen just wants easy, crave-worthy, and reasonably priced dishes that the neighborhood will embrace.
As for handhelds, a lemongrass chicken banh mi is offered alongside beef rendang, both kept in split hot dog rolls. The rendang, beefy and tender with its shredded, stewed meat, has a tangle of thinly sliced cabbage and pickled red onions to cut through the richness. For dessert, hojicha tres leches cake looks nice enough to eat in a fine-dining spot, with layers of complexity from the tea. Black sesame brown butter rice crispy treats are a grown up version of the classic sweet.
On the drinks side, Avery Millard, previous of Bar Agricole and the Line Hotel in San Francisco, prepares a cocktail menu far exceeding the norm for a dive bar, though without too much complexity. A refreshing shiso highball has the elegance of something from a Japanese listening bar, and the Missed Connections acts like a vegetal, Tiki-esque drink. The Fly Mamacita is a less-sweet Paloma variant with Thai chile-rambutan shrub, and the In the Same Breath is like an Old Fashioned but with yerba mate-infused vermouth and dill oil. As for wines, Randy Mariani touts a lot of easy-drinking, party-style, natural wines that Eastsiders will love.
Though Nguyen hasn’t yet made a big name for himself in LA, the veteran cook oversaw popular spots in New York City, like Silent H and Cafe Colette in Brooklyn, before going to Shanghai to operate the Grumpy Pig. Locally, Nguyen was a bartender at Father’s Office with Sang Yoon and was chef of a pop-up called Stay Lucky.
Once things downstairs fall into shape, Airliner regulars can look forward to the venue upstairs, which has been a legendary place for live music over the decades. Nguyen and company hope to reimagine that into a Japanese-style hi-fi listening bar, but with space for DJs and bands to play on the stage as well. That should open sometime in the middle of 2024.
The Airliner is open daily from 5 p.m. to midnight, with expanded hours in the future, and is located at 2419 North Broadway, Los Angeles, CA.