You can measure the mainstreaming of Vietnamese food by where it pops up. A fine example is Good Girl Dinette, a little café devoted to classic and modern Vietnamese comfort food. It’s run by Diep Tran, whose family owns the Los Angeles-based chain of Pho 79. (I’ve been to nearly all of them.) After working at non-profits for nearly 10 years, Diep wanted a career change. She was on the verge of burning out and decided to return to her family’s trade by opening hip Viet eateries in non-Viet neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Her first venture was Blue Hen in Eagle Rock and her current restaurant, opened in 2009, is Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park. (Diep is no longer affiliated with Blue Hen.) Eagle Rock and Highland Park are not sexy areas of Los Angeles. They’re working class communities with diverse immigrant populations. They’re a tad edgy and out of the way. Tourists rarely go there.
Los Angeles is a place of urban and suburban opportunities to mesh cultures and create something new. Diep, whose family came to the United States in the 1970s, embodies that spirit of thoughtful reinvention. She’s not the typical Vietnamese woman and does things a little different. Here’s a glimpse of Good Girl Dinette.
Location, Location, Location
Diep located her restaurant off of Figueroa in Highland Park. While it’s not gentrified and dolled up, the neighborhood is tidy. Los Angeles’s Gold Line train stops nearby and the a 110 freeway off-ramp (exit at Ave 52) is only 5 minutes away.
I respect Diep for not going the obvious route.It can be hard to draw customers to a place that’s out of the way. However, Good Girl Dinette is bringing Vietnamese food to an area with signs for mercados, taquerias and pupuserias. It’s an up and coming neighborhood though, with spots like the Little Cave bar nearby. Her customers run the gamut of locals, people you'd expect at a little diner.
The afternoon that we met in June, she introduced me to Chuy, a Latino man who she recently promoted to sous chef. There are many Latinos working in restaurant kitchens and it’s great to see a restaurateur helping to promote from within.
Part of her philosophy is that communities of color deserve good food made from good ingredients and served in a nice environment. Here’s a video of Diep on the notion that she’s gentrifying the neighborhood:
Farm to Table
All too often, Asian restaurants are forced into price completion and use the least expensive ingredients. Diep took a cue from Charles Phan of Slanted Door in San Francisco, and sources the best ingredients possible, calling out the farms and purveyors.
The walls at Good Girl Dinette are sparsely decorated but the one thing that you notice is the chalkboard of seasonal produce that the kitchen uses.
Diep and her staff call it out loud and proud. They also make darn good sodas from locally grown produce. Diep regularly shops at the Hollywood farmers market. Hers is an endeavor that communicates that her Vietnamese restaurant is on par with every other establishment that does farm fresh.
Classic and Modern
Diep opened Good Girl Dinette to serve well-prepared Vietnamese comfort good. What does that mean? “It’s the kind of food that your Vietnamese grandma would make,” Diep says to describe dishes like her tasty chicken pho, which is MSG-less, not overly sweet, and full of savory depth. Her soulful approach is a nod to her family’s northern Vietnamese roots.
But there are non-tradition dishes such as the appetizer of freshly fried tofu atop slices of moist warm rice cakes (see a recipe I devised) and French fries with an addictively good cilantro mayonnaise. One of Good Girl’s popular dishes is a chicken curry pot pie topped with homemade biscuits. I’d describe those items as things your cool Vietnamese-American auntie would come up with.
The only drawback to the dinette’s menu is that there’s no liquor. No problem. There’s a market nearby that stocks delicious Beerlao and other refreshing beverages too.
Supporting her Peeps
Soon (maybe even by now) Diep hopes to fill these shelves with pickles and preserves that she makes in-house, Good Girl Dinette t-shirts, and her favorite ingredients, one of which is Red Boat fish sauce.
I like the idea that she sells not just her stuff but also stuff that is made by others. Diep doesn’t see restaurateur-ship as a zero-sum game where you have to kill the competition. (I was just in New York City where there were two banh mi shops on two consecutive blocks.) She sees her work as one of building community and preparing delicious food.
Many first-generation restaurant families don't expect their children to continue the business. That's slowly changing as professional cooking is seen as solid, if not sexy, career. I don't think that Diep went into the restaurant business wanting to be a celebrity chef. She wanted to do good and Good Girl Dinette does just that. Check it out if and when you're in Los Angeles.
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