Next to the hostess stand at East Borough, a modern Vietnamese eatery that opened in Culver City this past January, a listing of specials runs alongside a board that reads, simply: "Ball so hard." In most instances it might cause a diner to roll their eyes—Really? You're trying that hard?—but there is little else at East Borough to suggest they have an attitute. Chef Chloe Tran, in collaboration with chef Jason Neroni (Superba Snack Bar), is cooking fresh Vietnamese food with a kick, and the only in-your-face aspect of the restaurant is a vibrant mural of a busy city street covering one wall.
In every other way, East Borough likes to keep it simple. There is a slight cafeteria feel to the place that comes across as we ordered at clustered tables, and the menu, a flimsy piece of paper that soaks up whatever grease that spills from our plates, is broken up into succinct categories: Greens, Plates, Sides, With rice, and Platters; there are only a handful of options under each section. But who needs options when the few choices available pack a punch? Two dishes from the "Greens" column were like night and day. The cauliflower and long bean, mixed with giant basil leaves, is chock full of peanuts and fried shallots, making each bite seem less like a salad and more like a hearty (and minty) side. The papaya salad takes a more refreshing route, with julienned cucumbers and green papaya, as well as all the usual suspects: basil, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) and a sprinkling of cashews. Chunks of sweet beef jerky also made an appearance among the veggies, a nod to casual cool at its finest.
"You should really get the Imperial rolls," said our waiter early on, writing down the order before we even had time to agree. Apparently this is what everyone asks for, and while it's easy to see why—pork and taro are fried in rolls and offered with a sweet nuoc mam (fish sauce) and lettuce wraps for DIY assembly—there is something off-putting about the starter. The salt, grease and heavy fattiness of the pork make it hard to consume an entire roll—and appetizers are not meant to be a challenge. It is wiser to stick to the aforementioned salads, however persuasive your waiter may be.
East Borough offers a "Common Table" option, consisting of four courses catered by the chef for $40 per person. If the wok charred oxtail is not part of the chef's plan, however, go rogue and order it à la carte. Neroni's bucatini noodles are moist, coated in a thick hoisin and sriracha sauce and tossed with shredded oxtail, bean sprouts, onions, Thai basil and cilantro. A crispy poached egg sits on top, and after it is broken and the yolk released, the bowl becomes a comfort food dream: creamy, rich and bursting of complex notes that never overhwelm each other. Seafood makes a noticeable appearance on the menu as well, and despite a hiccup—our fish was forgotten, then delayed, then apologized for profusely—the crispy roasted trout landed on our table. While there are a few issues with the dish (too salty, for one), the trout itself was a flaky delight. The accompanying anchovy vinaigrette is not overly fishy (a relief to all those, myself included, who have a slight aversion to the little guys), and a bed of jasmine rice and grilled pineapple added a sweet balance. Also sweet: our pot de creme, a light and simple dessert that didn't push us over the edge. It's not often that a restaurant can be compared to an overplayed rap song, but I have to admit: East Borough is ballin' pretty hard.
What to Eat: The papaya salad ($14). The cauliflower & long bean ($12). The wok charred oxtail ($17). The crispy roasted troat ($22). The pot de creme ($7).
What to Drink: It's difficult to take issue with the drinks here, because they are both well-balanced and strong. The problem lies in the fact that the drinks are full price, but with a third less volume. We tried The Golden Axe ($10), a cocktail sporting rye, vermouth and just the right amount of ginger and mint, but found that it was gone in mere sips before the salad arrived (and no, we were not knocking them back). Just know that the drinks will be good, but you may have to splurge on more than one.
Where to Sit: East Borough is cozy, with a tiny patio that flows into the restaurant. On a warm night, the patio will do just fine. For a more intimate feel, grab a booth. You won't have a drastically different experience though—it's just that small.
Conversation Piece: All of the noodles at East Borough are made by Neroni at Superba Snack Bar. The Superba name recently expanded with Superba Food & Bread in Venice.