Elaine Phuong and her brother, Victor, do not have a background in food. There is no culinary degree between them, nor did they grow up in a restaurant family. Prior to opening Nong La Cafe in Los Angeles, Elaine worked in ad sales while Victor earned a master’s degree in chemistry.
What they do have in common is their mom, Khanh Phan, whose comforting recipes from Saigon nourished and fed them throughout their lives. “My mom has always been a really good cook,” Elaine begins, “but it’s one thing to be a really good home cook. Opening a restaurant and really serving people? That’s a different story.”
But apparently not that different. Once Victor had the idea to open the restaurant, Elaine came on board to help with the business plan while Khanh committed to being the head chef, pinning down her favorite home cooked meals and scaling them for restaurant service. The trio started out with dinner parties at home among friends and family, gauging their interest and recruiting feedback. Once they found a landlord who believed in them as first-time restaurant owners, they went all in.
Nong La’s first location in the Sawtelle neighborhood on the Westside of Los Angeles opened in 2012 while a second restaurant in La Brea followed three years later.
“My mom was like, ‘I can’t give you much, but I can give you these recipes and hopefully you guys can make something out of it,'” Elaine says. What ensued were endless bowls of pho, bún bò huế, and bún riêu; stacks of bánh mì sandwiches with fatty cuts of grilled pork and fragrant lemongrass chicken; and limitless crunchy egg rolls and herbaceous spring rolls.
“What we’ve done with her food is really try to make it the way she likes it,” Elaine explains. “So if she uses a specific fish sauce, like Three Crab, that’s what we use because we know it tastes good and she wouldn’t want to serve something she wouldn’t have at home.”
Three Crab fish sauce is at the heart of one of Khanh’s recipes for Têt, or Lunar New Year: pickled radish or dưa món. This dish is unlike the wet and acidic pickled radish and carrot mixture you’ll find atop banh mi. Instead, it requires dehydrating the radish for extra crunch and needs to be pickled for two weeks for optimal flavour. The dish can be customized to include green papaya, carrots, or other root vegetables, but Khanh primarily uses radish.
“We normally eat this thing called bánh chưng for Chinese New Year-it’s like a glutinous rice cake wrapped with either meat or mung beans that’s handmade by a bunch of aunties and moms at every supermarket you can see,” Elaine says. “When I was a kid, my grandparents would fry it and eat it with sugar, but I always liked it with the pickled vegetables.”
To make her mom’s life easier during the weeks leading up to Lunar New Year feasts, Elaine bought her a new dehydrator with a customizable temperature gauge and timer to expedite the dry time for her soon-to-be pickled vegetables. Still, Khanh would insist on using an older dehydrator, or sometimes just an oven, waking up at 3 am to flip her fruits and vegetables. With this recipe, a dehydrator will be the easiest tool to ensure crunchy vegetables, but you can also use an oven set at its lowest temperature or dry the vegetables outside if you live in a sunny environment.
Once the vegetables are thoroughly dried out, a fish sauce vinaigrette is prepared and the daikon-and dried chillies if you want heat-are left to soak up the pungent, acidic flavours. This is not a quick pickle; Khanh and Elaine suggest leaving the radish to ferment for two weeks. But the wait is worth it. “It’s my favourite thing-it’s so delicious,” Elaine hums happily. “I will just walk by, grab it, and eat it straight.”
Pickled Daikon Recipe from Nong La Cafe
2-3kg pounds of daikon
10 Thai chillies (or to taste, depending on what your palate can tolerate)
15 cloves of garlic
5 cups of water
2 cups of fish sauce
3 cups of sugar
⅓ cup of vinegar
1. Slice the daikon to desired shape and size. We like to slice them around 1 centimetre. You don’t want to cut it too thin, or else you won’t get a good crunch.
2. Cut the garlic cloves in half.
3. Soak the daikon in salt water for 30 minutes (this rinses it out and will help the daikon last longer).
4. Rinse the daikon off with cold water and let it dry.
5. Once dried, you’ll need to dehydrate the daikon radish slices. We like to use a dehydrator for 4 hours at 135 degrees, but you can also leave it out in the sun until it has shrivelled up. If you’d like to save some time, you can purchase dried and shrivelled up carrots and daikon at the supermarket now too.
6. While the radishes are dehydrating, use a saucepan and make the sauce. Combine all sauce ingredients into a saucepan on medium low heat.
7. Bring to a simmer and let the sugar melt.
8. Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool down.
9. Once it’s cooled down, place the daikon into a jar with the fish sauce and wait 2 weeks for the daikon to expand.
Notes: People usually use a mix of carrots and daikon but we just like the flavours of daikon only. The mixture of the chilli and garlic is an estimate and based on preference. You can add in as much as you want, to give it flavour. We normally make this in large batches to share with family and friends.
The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.
From June 29 – July 31, 2023, Red Rooster is serving up free food items, a chance to win $10,000 or one of 10 merch packs valued at $400 and other fun prizes. All you have to do is sign up as a Red Royalty member and spend $5 on at a location near you or online.
Each week there’ll be new delicious deals and prizes to win. The week one deals have already dropped and they’re looking pretty tasty. You can get access to them via your Red Royalty account. The more you purchase, the more chances you have to win.
Spoiler alert: you can get 10 chicken nuggets for free, right now. Brb running to Red Rooster.