Chef and restaurateur Tin Vuong is slaying the LA restaurant scene, having opened several critically acclaimed restaurants and will have a total of seven by the end of the year.
From Asian to Italian to Mexican, it seems that Vuong’s talents for global cuisine have no boundaries.
Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, Vuong’s culinary career has taken him around the world, working at a number of notable restaurants and hotels. We recently caught up with him at the LA Food & Wine Festival to ask him about his love of whisky flights, greasy joints and monkey burgers.
“The monkey burger is a burger topped with animal style fries. I discovered it through weed-loving friends.”
Tell us about your latest restaurants, Steak & Whisky and Little Sister. How are they different?
Well, we’re gearing up to open Little Sister Downtown this September. It’s going to be different in the sense that we will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner (In our Manhattan Beach location we only offer dinner and lunch on Friday and the weekends.) We’re also adding a bunch of new dishes to the menu, although favorites from Manhattan Beach will remain. The downtown restaurant – at 7th and Grand – is going to be a bit lighter/brighter than its Manhattan Beach counterpart.
Our newest concept is Steak & Whisky, a contemporary steakhouse in the heart of Hermosa Beach. At S&W, we focus on dry aged meats (most up to 30 days), premium whiskies, and a great wine program (we have a number of wines on Coravin). While the steaks are the bread and butter of the menu, a variety of dishes change seasonally as well.
Besides being an accomplished chef, you’re also a master sommelier and curate all the wines in your restaurants. What prompted you to become a sommelier?
I think it’s very important to understand wine and flavor profiles. It helps me greatly with menu ideation to think about what I would pair with each dish. Needless to say, I also just have a great passion for wine. Beverage Director/Sommelier Scott Young and Sommelier Micah Fields at Steak & Whisky also have a big hand in developing our wine/beverage program. We recently started offering whisky-tasting flights at Steak & Whisky, which are becoming very popular, and we’re starting to roll out a series of wine dinners as well.
Merging global flavors with fresh seasonal ingredients seems to be a recurrent (and delicious!) theme in your dishes. Do you have any favorite fusions or combinations you’ve created?
I would say that of all the restaurants, Little Sister really represents my craft and personality the most. Currently, we’re offering a “Singapore Chili Soft-Shell Crab” Bánh Mì ($18) with spiced tomato relish and pickled garlic, which is very popular. Many people don’t associate seafood with being seasonal (generally it’s produce), but beginning in late spring, blue crabs shed their shells in a significant warm-weather growth spurt. If they stay in the water, they grow new, larger shells, but when they’re harvested, that process comes to a halt and the crabs stay soft (and almost completely edible). Their season can be incredibly short or last through summer, depending upon weather, demand, and water temperature conditions.
Plus, you throw a mean pizza! After opening WildCraft in Culver City, it was named “Best New Pizzeria of 2013” in LA Weekly. Where did you learn to make such great pizza?
Well, I earned my pizza making stripes at the Americas branch of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (The True Neapolitan Pizza Association), a non-profit organization whose mission is to “promote and protect in Italy and worldwide the true Neapolitan pizza.” “Wildcraft” actually refers to the wild yeast in our 30-year-old sourdough starter, a live culture that the staff fondly refers to as “Betty.” The three-day fermentation and proofing process produces a pungent scent and tart-sour flavor.
We’ve read that you like monkey burgers from In-N-Out. What is a monkey burger and how did you discover this secret menu item?
It’s a burger topped with animal style fries. I discovered it through weed-loving friends.
Favorite restaurants in LA?
I love the San Gabriel Valley (where I live) for cheap and late night eats. Some of my favorites include:
• Costco Food Court – Chicken Bake
• The Hat – Pastrami Sandwich
• Tasty Garden – Guzzle & Nosh Hong Kong waffle
• Pepe’s Mexican Food\
• Baccali Cafe & Rotisserie – #2
• Elite Restaurant – dim sum
• Banh Mi My Tho
• Savoy Kitchen – Hainan chicken and rice
• Sam Woo – Peking duck, roasted chicken and chow mein
• Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa – bun bo hue
What’s one unusual hobby or interest you have that most people don’t know about you?
I like to build remote controlled high-end models. (i.e., race cars, helicopters, airplanes and drones).
Lastly, what advice would you give to a young man who’d like to impress his date with a homemade meal?
Make rotisserie chicken.
*Editor’s Note: The In-N-Out Monkey Burger is the source of much controversy. More details here.