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No matter how many times it happens, the fact that a new, independent restaurant has sprouted up in the midst of OC's ever-improving food scene never ceases to fill me with anticipation and an endorphin-induced flood of optimism. It could be that it is representative of peoples' continued desire to take chances and steer towards, rather than away from, their lifelong foodie dreams, diving head first into something that is uncertain to fulfill their career aspirations, and even, these days, uncertain to actually succeed. But there's still something about the newness, the risk, the seductive combination of taking the plunge and hold-your-breath waiting to see what comes up on the surface that never gets old.
Not to mention the prospect that these newcomers to the world of commercial gastronomy may be creating something truly delicious to share with others who likewise appreciate a regular stimulation to the "tasty" area of the brain, wherever that may reside. (But it does reside. We're sure of that.) That's some, but not all, of the story behind East Borough, a Vietnamese restaurant recently opened at The CAMP. Owned by OC locals John Cao and Chloe Tran, who came up with the idea in 2003 while in college, East Borough has, self-evidently, been a long time in the making. But it took graduate school, separate career paths and a lot of nine-to-fives to persuade Cao and Tran to revisit the idea. After being less than impressed with the standard workday, the two friends decided to use their combined talents in design, marketing and food to draw up a business plan that had three requirements: freshness, Vietnam and simplicity. What they've come up with is exactly that - a small, open-air, walk-up-and-order restaurant with a wisely edited menu and a design aesthetic that reflects uncomplicatedness. Or, if you ignore the yogis descending from the nearby Bikram studio and the faithful vegan crowds noshing on Earth Bowls at Native Foods, it could reflect a beach in southern Vietnam, with you sipping water straight out of a freshly cracked coconut.
Which is one of the things that impressed us so much about East Borough in the first place: a coconut. The stuff that comes out of the coconut, to be more precise: coconut water. If you're rolling your eyes right now, that's understandable. Yes, coconut water has been showing up everywhere from your local crunchy health food market to Trader Joe's, reportedly as the cure for everything from dehydration to potassium deficiency (which we imagine is something like scurvy, e.g. something you really have to try to have happen to you), but aside from potentially exaggerated health claims, this coconut water is simply delicious (and probably a little good for you, too). With just the right amount of sweet, clear coconutiness and fresh chunks of coconut pulp mixed to make an icy cold beverage, it's about all anyone can actually wish for in a drink (a midday one, anyway).
This coconut was, in fact, our first introduction to East Borough. And it's a good thing too, since it only made us more curious about the rest that it had to offer. The restaurant labels itself as "fraîche" Vietnamese, a term that likely has something to do with the fact that it aims to combine the classic flavors of Vietnam with the California taste for fresh we've become so accustomed to. And while it's understandable to alter a traditional cuisine to fit its local environs, one could argue that Vietnamese food has suffered from a surplus of fusion-ing, transforming it into something hardly recognizable to those looking for the real thing. But the good part about this is that East Borough hasn't fusioned much of anything, really. Besides referencing its fraîche-ness, the menu reads like a traditional Vietnamese selection: banh mi, spring rolls and vermicelli noodles accompanied by things like Vietnamese ham, crispy shallots and lots of cilantro.
That isn't to say that East Borough hasn't taken some liberties. The salads exemplify California fresh fusion while still maintaining their roots. Take the grapefruit lemongrass salad, for example, a refreshing blend of lemongrass- and sesame-seasoned chicken on red cabbage and carrots, topped with juicy wedges of pink grapefruit and cilantro and doused in citrus vinaigrette. It's crunchy, sweet, tart, and remarkably filling. Likewise, the other salad on the menu, grilled pork with shredded green papaya and basil, seasoned with soy sauce vinaigrette, hits the right Vietnam-West Coast mood.
East Borough ramps up into its heartier dishes with sandwiches like the grilled pork banh mi. Tender chunks of all-natural pork are layered inside a lightly toasted baguette, then covered in cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro, pickled daikon, and carrots. It's a combination of flavors that can do no wrong (except for the whole bite of raw jalapeño, which, like me, might catch you off guard, necessitating even more coconut water). The Vietnamese beef stew is more thinned out than thick and hearty, and more intensely flavored than expected, with large chunks of fall-apart meat and soft carrots and a perfect amount of spice.
If dessert is on your must-have dining list (it's on mine), East Borough may not be your first choice, but there are some options. There are always pre-packaged cookies from local bakeries available, or gargantuan Asian pears piled up at the front counter.