Sunday, July 13, 2008

Benley - Long Beach

First things first: if you are Vietnamese or otherwise familiar with the culinary terrain and back alleyways of Little Saigon, stop reading right now. If you do not heed this warning, I will not be responsible for the damage your spit-take will do to your computer screens.

The restaurant I'm about to review is not meant for you. It's cut from the same cloth as The Slanted Door in San Francisco, and Crustacean in Beverly Hills; places that charge $8.95 for a bowl of pho without batting an eye, catering to customers who might even think it's a bargain. Need more proof? The dinnerware looks like a showcase for Mikasa and in the crowded room, my Asian face was in the minority.

Perhaps my lovely dining companion said it best when she said, "no self-respecting Vietnamese would ever eat here."

But unlike Crustacean, a regrettable experience that still makes my blood boil, I liked Benley, a lot.

This is an eatery that shares the same sort of vibe as one of my favorites, Cafe Hiro. It's in a sparsely decorated, long, bowling alley of a room that feels as casually unpretentious as it does claustrophobic.

And just like Cafe Hiro, the kitchen takes the base flavors of an Asian culture and blends it with a touch of European prep and presentation. Use the dreaded "f" word if you must. Yes, it is "fusion".

But with that said, I still couldn't justify paying nine-dollars for bowl of pho.

What I ordered instead was four appetizers and a curry chicken dish.

The first was the lemongrass-charred pork spring rolls ($6.95), which is goi cuon thit nuong for you Little Saigonites who are still with me. Of course, it was just the same protein you'd see on a plate of com tam, wrapped in rice paper with cucumbers and noodles, served with a traditional peanut dipping sauce.

But somehow, despite the fact that it was cut on the diagonal and fashionably arranged upright like a modern art piece, it still won me over. The ribbons of pork were well-flavored like it's meant to be; the rice paper had a pleasant chewy pull; and the dipping sauce was a blubbery warm contrast to the cucumber's cool.

It made me forget (at least for the few seconds it took to eat them) that I could've gotten double the amount in nem nuong rolls at Brodard for a dollar less.

Battered, salted cuttlefish ($7.95) was just fried squid by another name -- and when did "cuttlefish" suddenly become a more palatable word than "calamari"? Yet, it's one of the better versions I've had lately.

Coated in a bubbly batter with a noisy crunch, it's pre-drizzled with lime juice and wilted cilantro. Not surprisingly, it's refreshing to the palate and addictive as a result.

Then there's something Benley's menu calls "Vietnamese risotto"($5.95), a dish that demonstrates how well the restaurant has mastered word play with a translation both ingenious and dangerously effective. I was so seduced by it that I completely missed the Vietnamese word printed in italics beneath it. Its true identity? Chao.

That's right folks. I ordered porridge. And I loved it.

Obviously, the substance was nothing like risotto. Its consistency was just what you expect of congee. Plunge a spoon into it and the starch clings like oatmeal. But it's good and satisfying. Every helping was a spoonful of comfort with the taste of chicken broth, cracked black pepper and sauteed mushrooms. If the dish could wink at me and say "Gotcha!" it would've. And I would've high-fived it right back.

For the next dish, care to venture a guess to what the "avocado puree" served with the braised short rib ($6.95) will remind you of?

If you said "guacamole", you get a prize. So does Benley for creating it. It's simply that: a chopstick-tender hunk of beef, resting on an island of mashed avocado. And despite the fact that the protein needed a touch more salt, it worked.

The main course of chicken curry ($10.95) involved no descriptive shenanigans or clever marketing-speak.

It's nothing more than two fist-sized boulders of boneless dark meat simmered in a murky yellow broth flecked with tiny melted globules of the rendered fat. Also swimming in it was an obligatory chunk of potato.

Although it was served with an inordinately small serving of rice that will get depleted before you finish the dish, the curry was light enough and perfectly suited to being sipped as soup.

Dessert was buttermilk panna cotta ($6.95), a jiggly, tangy, mouth-filling pudding more sophisticated than Jell-O and lighter than custard. Straddling it was a puddle of sauce that tasted like the lemon meringue filling from Polly's or Marie Callender's.

With it I propose that Benley revise its subtitle. Right now it reads "A Vietnamese Kitchen." To that, I would add an asterisk.

Benley: A Vietnamese Kitchen
(562) 596-8130
8191 E Wardlow
Long Beach, CA 90808

*Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for this tip.

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21 Comments:

At 5:43 PM, Blogger sioux5ita said...

I agree with your dining companion that no self-respecting Vietnamese would eat there. Benley reminds me of Pho Cafe in Silverlake. I had the overpriced bowl of pho which was small and I could not help thinking that I could get two bowls at Pho 79 for the same price. However, I found both the braised short rib and the "guacamole" to be lacking in seasoning.

 
At 6:03 PM, Blogger anna said...

excellent review as always; thank you. piping up to say that cuttlefish is different from squid. battered and fried, it'd be hard to distinguish, but they're actually different creatures!

i much prefer cuttlefish, though my science friends tell me that cuttlefish and octopus are scarily smart and thus a little hard to swallow without pangs. squid, however? safely dumb.

 
At 10:06 PM, Blogger Delta Boy said...

Another great review and another place for DB to try out!

How funny, my roomie and I were having dinner with a friend at Lomeli's in Brea and they were just talking about how great Cafe Hiro was (I was talking about Nory's the Japanese Peruvian place too).

Thanks for the heads up!

 
At 11:53 AM, Blogger Charlie Fu said...

Sioux5ita. If you are looking for quantity over quality you obviously wont' be satisfied with Benley.. but the Pho broth / meat/ noodles are far superior to Pho 79.

Elmo, try the flattened chicken if you go again as well as the stir fried filet mignon.

 
At 12:43 PM, Blogger Bill said...

ELMO!!!!!
I should of yield reading after the warning but no I had to continue despite. What a joke. Why pay more for less when you can get a lot more for less @ Bolsa. But they sure make it look pretty ;-)

 
At 1:44 PM, Blogger Beach said...

Elmo,
This restaurant in on the corner of Wardlow and Norwalk ( Los Alamitos)? Near TJ MAX?. I always thought they are part of Los Alamitos or Cypress. Good review as always. Interesting concept. Maybe I should try it one of these days.

 
At 4:50 PM, Anonymous AlwaysHungry said...

Doesn't look like it will fit my budget or my tastebuds

 
At 6:39 PM, Blogger Diamond Dog said...

Thanks for the warning before you went into the post. You sure know your readers and also know how they crave authenticity and don't pay more than they have to

 
At 7:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OH I read another entry about this place earlier in the week... I guess it's getting some buzz in the foodie community, and that great minds think alike!

 
At 10:47 AM, Blogger Wandering Chopsticks said...

Elmo,
How could you? But yeah, I've heard of this place, and knew they weren't aimed at me. Like Viet Noodle Bar. Ick!

 
At 5:55 PM, Blogger h said...

I loved the Slanted Door last time I visited SF. I'm also thinking about eating at Cafe Hiro tonight.... All that said.. I'm glad you found me another good eatery that I must try.

 
At 6:37 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

sioux5ita,

It's funny because Cafe Hiro has the same sort of prices, but no one blinks because all Japanese food is expensive. So I guess, Cafe Hiro doesn't stick out as much as Benley does.

It's only when you try to upclass Mexican or Vietnamese (two of the traditionally the cheaper ethnic foods) that people start noticing the prices.

And yup, if that short rib just had a touch more salt...

anna,

Ahh! A fellow science geek. Yes, I was wondering when I was going to get called out on my cuttlefish comment. And you are right. They are, indeed, different creatures! And they do taste smarter, now that I think about it!

Delta Boy,

Cafe Hiro is still great isn't it? I finally tried the uni spaghetti last week and it was everything everyone said it would be.

Charlie Fu,

Flattened chicken eh? That sounds yummy. Sounds like brick chicken, which I've always wanted to try.

Bill,

HAHA! So did you spit what you were drinking all over your computer screen? I bet you did!

Beach,

Yes it is the same one you speak of. I also thought that it was Los Alamitos. And are you the same Beach that took us to Pagolac? Your profile link suggests that you aren't, but just in case you are, I am honored to have you comment on my blog once again, oh "Don of Little Saigon". If you aren't, then I shall call you Beach Jr.! Like Michael Corleone.

AlwaysHungry,

You are either a self-respecting Vietnamese or someone familiar with Bolsa then! HAHA!

Diamond Dog,

I had to put in that warning for exactly that reason. I know my audience...and they're just like me! Except I REALLY liked this place! A lot!

Anonymous,

Aw shucks. You know I can't pay you to say such nice things. But thanks.

Wandering Chopsticks,

Viet Noodle Bar. Even the name makes me shudder.

h,

Your comment makes me long for a pumpkin soup. Like right now!

 
At 10:52 AM, Blogger Passionate Eater said...

Elmo, I am Vietnamese, and I kept reading, and still loved your review! I wouldn't mind eating there, because no self-respecting Vietnamese would eat my food either--thus meaning that I am not self-respecting.

 
At 11:26 PM, Blogger Scotty Tran said...

Haha, you got me. I'm not Vietnamese, but I died a little inside when I read that people would pay those prices for a bowl of pho. I eat it pretty much monthly and I guess that maybe if it was THAT good, I'd consider trying it. I still find those prices mildly ludicrous though.

 
At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm glad anna gave the lesson about cuttlefish and calamari being different. it's actually a lot more tender and i think that is what makes it better. while on the topic of battered and salted things at benley... try the salted shrimps. they are an entree but great to share. they are tender, whole shrimp and you eat the whole thing... head, shell and all. the tasty batter is on the outside and the shells just melt away. plus, they top it with a jalapeno, lemongrass mixture for an extra kick. (14.95) but worth it. it's not easy to find a place that sells the whole shrimp, battered and fried fresh to order. hooray for benley!

 
At 7:29 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Passionate Eater,

You just blew my mind. My head is still spinning. But yes, the place is meant to be enjoyed with an open mind, which you are obviously in possession of!

Scotty,

Yeah, I couldn't bring myself to get the pho either. But the other stuff is done well. Worth the price? Well that depends on who you ask!

Anon,

I eyed that dish...and was *this* close to ordering it. Just means I have something to try next time! Thanks for confirming its greatness. I relish a good fried shrimp with edible shells.

 
At 8:45 PM, Blogger windo said...

great post, elmo!

yeah, like most vietnamese or maybe most asian parents, mine gave me the guilt trip for spending $9 on a bowl of pho at the slanted door, or even $6 for banh mi at break of dawn.

but if people are willing to pay for it, and they're introduced to new cuisine, no matter what country it's from, i'm all for it. hopefully, when they come to try the "authentic" neighborhood Bolsa version of $5 pho or $2 banh mi, they'll be that much more delighted.

 
At 7:44 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

windo,

Excellent point! I hadn't thought of it like that before! Yes, if I were new to Vietnamese cuisine and this was the first place I had it, I'd take my new found appreciation to its epicenter and do everything to pay less for it if I could. Of course, I'm like that...cheap!

 
At 1:27 PM, Blogger Red Hawk said...

Don't think of it as a Vietnamese restaurant. It's really more of an Vietnamese-influenced restaurant. The food is incredibly good and at these prices it's no surprise they are lined up out the door to get in her on weekends. Great little find.

 
At 7:20 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Red Hawk,

Great point! And you're right. I didn't mention it in the review, because I just plum forgot, but there was a line. I had to wait for a table.

 
At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ever order wine there? i did, what a surprise! what i thought was a $5.50 pinot noit glass, cost 11 bucks. menu code: s-g-b, defined as splash-glass-bottle. heck, what's a splash?

cafe hiro tops my list, and a glass of wine costs less.

 

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