Two meters further on I see several dishes coming out of the kitchen at a neighboring table and everything looks delicious. I recognize the impressive imperial rolls and papaya salad from Chef Tin Vuong, each plate artfully topped with a nest of fresh herbs. The Southeast Asian cuisine at Little Sister is served family style, and the family of four at this table is starting to rummage around, excitedly handing plates around, when suddenly one of the children screams frantically: “Peanuts!” And everyone froze.
The father jumps from his chair and waves to a waiter. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “I forgot to mention that we have a peanut allergy. It’s my fault. I’m usually very proactive, but this is the first time we’ve dined in a restaurant in 12 months and I’ve completely forgotten how to behave. “ The waiter takes the news calmly and gracefully wipes away three dishes.
Little Sister opened last month at Irvine Spectrum, the fifth largest location of Vuong’s sultry brasserie with a tropical and urban feel. I say fifth because I’m counting the Huntington Beach chef’s tiny LSXO, which is a small offshoot with less than 20 seats. The “LS” in LSXO stands for Little Sister. The original Little Sister opened in Manhattan Beach years ago, followed by locations in Redondo Beach and downtown LA
The Spectrum location is by far the most beautiful, dramatic, and largest of the group – with seating for at least 120 guests indoors when it eventually reaches full capacity. The entrance is cloaked in clusters of giant birds of paradise and banana trees that wrap around a front patio with ceiling fans spinning lazily. The outdoor area was temporarily extended into the public courtyard of the Spectrum next to the Apple Store. At lunchtime, the dining room is bathed in soft daylight that falls through a mirrored glass wall. When it gets dark, the dining room becomes dark and atmospheric. And while it’s not currently operating at maximum capacity, this is by far the busiest restaurant I’ve been to since the pandemic started. Making reservations at short notice can be difficult.
However, every table, indoor and outdoor, has a printed notice instructing guests to protect staff and the community by wearing masks when they are not eating or drinking. The customers seem to be mainly following this appeal.
Anyone who has already been to LSXO will already be familiar with the Little Sister menu, as it is practically identical. No other chef in Orange County has modernized Vietnamese cuisine as successfully as Vuong. The flavors are similar to what you might find in Little Saigon, but the quality of the ingredients and art of presentation stand out noticeably, not to mention the fortune that must have been spent on setting it up.
The Imperial Rolls are exactly the same as at LSXO: fat minced meat, shrimp and crabs rolled in rice paper and fried until crispy and served with fresh herbs, large lettuce leaves and rice noodles. They arrive so hot you will burn your fingers if you impulsively rush to pick one up.
This papaya salad is also well-known, crispy and slightly sour, with chewy slivers of beef jerky and garnished with glazed shrimp. Both dishes are needed to eat. Just like the freshly roasted pork rinds that are dusted with red curry powder.
The best to eat is the Nem Lui, which is made with ground pork and beef meatballs skewered on lemongrass stalks and then heavily charred on the grill. I’ve seen people try to eat the lemongrass but don’t do that. You should slide the meat off the woody grass skewers before dipping these things in a sweet and tangy dipping sauce. The whole thing can be insanely messy, so don’t be surprised if the sauce drips off your elbow.
The menu is extensive and it will take many more visits to work through. So far everything has been delicious or at least acceptable. In the latter case, I’m thinking of the Chicken Pho, an oversized bowl of Vietnamese-style chicken noodle soup. It’s undoubtedly good, but if you’re already a fan of, say, Pho Ga Hai Van in OC’s Little Saigon, this bowl is unlikely to change your loyalty .
Whatever your schedule, make sure to squeeze in a few cocktails and some strawberry meringue cake. The “cake” is ethereal. And the bar program is excellent – you’ll feel like you’re on vacation.
Where: 896 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine
When: Daily lunch and dinner
COVID comfort: Does this restaurant feel safe? Definitely yes on the terrace. Inside, not quite. The tables inside are just a meter apart, and the indoor capacity far exceeds current (orange) guidelines.