5i Indochine Cuisine successfully navigates the flavors of China, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and Indonesia
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
A Japanese friend of mine rails against “hyphenated” restaurants; she is a stickler for purity of cuisine. Places that serve combinations like Thai and sushi raise her blood pressure. She can’t believe that they could possibly have a cultural connection with both. Often these combinations are indeed a pure business calculation to broaden the customer base, but occasionally you find a place where a chef just enjoys multiple cuisines and wants to cook them all.
This seems to be the case at 5ik Indochinese Cuisine in Culver City, a little café that shares a parking lot with two dive bars and a shop selling swords and flintlocks. The menu is mostly Chinese and Vietnamese with a few Thai, Japanese and Indonesian items, so a big chunk of the world is represented in this small café.
Most items are subtitled in Vietnamese, so I had expected that the chef hailed from there. But our cheery server said he’s Chinese and just liked the flavors. She was a wealth of information and explained that the restaurant’s name is a Chinese pun — apparently it means something like “Loving Place.” The restaurant has a decorative scheme as wide-ranging as its menu: pictures of Buddha and the Mona Lisa are alongside views of the Seine, Chinese countryside and what appears to be the Saigon airport terminal.
We decided to start with Chinese salt and pepper calamari and the finger-sized Vietnamese pork eggrolls called cha gio. Both hit their mark without being outstanding. The eggrolls were good and served with some salad, but not the traditional lettuce for wrapping them Vietnamese-style.
We continued with crab and cucumber fried rice, spicy garlic shrimp, and stir-fried vegetables, and it was here that the kitchen really hit its stride. The rice was fluffy and had plenty of crab along with mixed vegetables, and while I hadn’t previously tried cucumber in fried rice, it certainly works. The shrimp lived up to its name, served with broccoli and onions in a sauce with liberal amounts of granulated garlic and a hefty dose of white and chili pepper. The broccoli seemed slightly overdone for a Chinese stir-fry, but the flavors were so good that we were happy anyway. There was no such problem with the vegetable stir-fry made with bok choy, water chestnut, broccoli, carrot and tofu in a light, sweet sauce with a hint of smokiness. Simple things well done can be delightful, and that was certainly the case with this.
The only misfire on this visit was with the final item to arrive – pad thai noodles in a thick, sweet sauce, with just a dusting of peanuts and a few shreds of bean sprouts on the side. The scallions, egg, chili and other items that make this dish such a delight were missing or in such short supply that they were undetectable. It was hard to believe that it came from the same kitchen, and we didn’t finish it.
Our meal for four with glasses of freshly made Vietnamese-style lemonade ran only $65, and we had enough left over for at least one full lunch — a bargain. After we left I realized that I hadn’t tried one of their signature dishes, and decided I had to return.
The restaurant was packed the next day at lunch, but it was only a brief wait to get a table and order pho bo ko — a soup with lean beef, brisket, carrots and noodles in a beef and tomato stock. Pho is the measure of restaurants serving Vietnamese food, and this one measured up in most respects. The stock was delicious, aromatic with star anise, garlic and pepper balanced against tomato and carrot sweetness, and the beef was authentic to a fault. The Vietnamese like some fat on their brisket and there were a few lumps of it in the soup, but I put these at the side of the bowl and enjoyed the rest. The only way in which the soup was lacking was the side vegetables — basil, jalapeno, bean sprouts and lime were provided so they could be added to taste, but not perilla or mint. These were not much missed because the soup was fine on its own, and at $10 for a filling bowl, a bargain lunch.
5i Indochine Cuisine gets a lot right, and they raise the standard for Southeast Asian food in the area. They are that rarity: a hyphenated restaurant that does many things well and with character, and a fine addition to the neighborhood.
5i Indochine Cuisine is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. No alcohol. Some vegetarian/vegan items. Park in the lot.