Small Venue, Big Thrills
Getting to know Manhattan Beach’s spunky Little Sister
In culinary writing, there are certain tired phrases that ought to send the offending journalist straight to the penalty box. The phrase “East-meets-West” leaps to mind, and so I must self-exile when I note that Chef Tin Vuong’s latest effort, Manhattan Beach’s Little Sister, epitomizes that particular cliché.
Of Vietnamese descent, Chef Tin grew up in the 626, one of LA’s richest area codes—at least in the multicultural sense. His resumé is further distinguished by a degree in economics from UCLA, a recent star turn on Food Network’s Chef Wanted and some serious wine knowledge.
These thoroughly Western influences converge at Little Sister in key ways. A careful economy of scale, a next-gen celebrity chef and a killer wine list align here with the collective flavors of Southeast Asia in winning style.
“Little Sister,” by the way, is a reference to Vuong’s and biz partner Jed Sanford’s popular Hermosa Beach outlet, Abigaile, the big sister of sorts to this tiny stunner. Their newest family member accommodates only about 50 guests, and its intimacy is a large part of its appeal. Too many restaurateurs build big, assuming 120 seats will ensure financial survival—when the opposite is very often the case.
Located across the street from Chef David LeFevre’s mini-empire, Little Sister brings a completely different food aesthetic to the South Bay—one in which full-on French cheese co-exists with okra done Burmese. I loved the thoughtful Periodic Table of Spices included as a reference guide in the menu, a handy printed catalog of the piquant cosmos that I sneakily tucked into my purse for future reference.
Voung’s thit bo luc lac, or “shaky, shaky beef,” has already developed quite the cult following since the restaurant’s opening, and with good reason. It’s ridiculously good.
Vadouvan-spiced quail added some Indian aromatics, while the steamed red snapper with ginger, scallions and cilantro sang of Hong Kong. I also liked Vuong’s list of “Eastside 626 Provisions”—a summary of what you’d likely find on just about any kitchen table in the San Gabriel Valley, where tasty sides like Mekong flowering rice, papaya with chiles and mustard oil, red and green sambal, and mango with tamarind beckon to your belly.
Ordering too big at Little Sister is a big problem, though, so go easy. Portions are generous and, frankly, not inexpensive. (That snapper clocks in at a hefty $32 a plate.)
With so much Asian spice, beverage becomes searingly critical. Thankfully, there’s beer, beer, beer—and great beer, as fans of Abigaile already know. There’s also an extensive list of sake and wine.
Let me digress for a moment to question why any Asian restaurant concept seems beholden to sake. They’re not sipping it in Naypyidaw nor in Ho Chi Minh City, for that matter, so it’s an annoyingly American knee-jerk reaction to program sake when there’s not a whisper of sushi nor sashimi on the menu.
Pass on the sake and head straight to Chef Tin’s well-curated wine list. He began sommelier studies himself, and the variety of thoughtful wines available by the glass encourages experimentation. For my part, I head to white wines like gewürztraminer that can taste cloying on their own but harmonize well with disparate South Asian notes like lychee, green papaya and lemongrass. And for that tasty shakin’ beef, consider my friend Etienne Terlinden’s awesome Cordon Syrah from Paso Robles. It’s a steal at $55 a bottle.
A note to South Bay families: We dined on a weeknight at 5:30 p.m. with Grandma, Grandpa and two seasoned restaurant kids in tow. I am hardly the mom who requests mac ’n’ cheese and nuggets, but as a restaurant parolee myself, I know it’s not too much to ask the kitchen at an off-peak time to send out a little plain rice. My kids left hungry.
The grown-ups, however, left weighing substantially more and salivating for our next visit to this very, very, very good restaurant from a chef who’s about to blow up big. Get there if you haven’t been already.