Pho Tastes Better Inside of a Taco
With so many crossover flavors between Vietnamese and Mexican food, it was only a matter of time until someone realized that even a dish like pho tastes better when wrapped in a corn tortilla.
Alle fotos af Javier Cabral
Angelenos have a tendency to wrap everything in a tortilla and call it a meal.
Falafel, Korean barbecue, clam and lardons, uni-topped scrambled eggs—you name it and someone in this city has most likely scarfed it down their throat while wrapped in one, cuisine purity be damned. We just can't help ourselves, since almost all leftovers taste amazing when placed on top of a tortilla and drizzled with a little salsa and freshly squeezed lime.
However, the main difference in discerning whether said taco mishmash is an act of brilliance or simply an act of desperation depends on a few elements: the thought put behind the taco, the soul of the cook behind the taco, and most importantly, the taco's flavor and texture. These are the three characteristics that Kenneth Nguyen has hit with his new Vietnamese taco shop, Rakken Tacos.
On an early Wednesday afternoon, the spacious restaurant located in a strip in the industrial city of Commerce is almost empty. There are a couple of women wearing hijabs who are having a late lunch, a mailman who brought his son to casually have some pho tacos, and Nguyen's wife. She is sitting at a table and typing away on her computer, organizing the upcoming OC version of the 626 Night Market, one of Southern California's largest food events, and the same food event that birthed Nguyen's concept of these unique Vietnamese tacos.
Meats on sticks from every Asian culture play an important role in 626 Night Market. The food event usually hosts a handful of vendors selling everything from cumin-dusted Chinese lamb skewers to Japanese-style pork belly skewers. Nguyen was one these skewer vendors. "We were marinating and selling 10,000 skewers per event, and one day I was like, 'Oh my God, why don't we put these in a tortilla?'" Nguyen did just that, and the tacos proved to be a smashing success, with him selling upwards of 8,000 tacos per event. When he saw the success of his whimsical taco idea, he tapped into his first generation Vietnamese-American roots and created the pho taco, a Vietnamese chicken curry taco, and his lemongrass al pastor taco.
'I would just imagine that I was eating Vietnamese food but done by Mexican people, since the flavors were so similar.'
The 40-year-old is is quick to admit that his adoration of Mexican food even trumps the cuisine of his heritage. He takes a moment to reflect on his earliest food memories as a kid growing up in South LA, eating tacos and mariscos at Taco Chabelita. He claims that the turning point in his life that made him realize that he was destined to cook food came when he 12 years old. His mom asked him to help her prepare a notorious Vietnamese dish made with raw duck blood called tiết canh vịt. It was already a favorite of his, but he had never helped make it until that day.
"We used to have ducks and chickens in our backyard. One day my mom asked me to kill one of our ducks, drain the blood, pluck the feathers, and I found the entire process to be so amazing," Nguyen tells me.
The dish is complicated to prepare, to say the least, requiring you to act quickly while you balance the proper ratio of fish sauce to blood and immediately put the mixture in the fridge to prevent the blood from coagulating. Nonetheless, preparing this fierce dish planted the seed in Nguyen. He went on to open up a pho restaurant by UCLA in 1997, but his parents pleaded with him to close it and do other things in life. Nguyen was a good son and listened to his parents. He served as a Marine for a while, worked in the film industry, and dabbled in his family business of woven grass curtain manufacturing, but he couldn't silence his Vietnamese taco calling.
So, he opened up Rakken on his own three months ago.
The menu at Rakken is fairly small and its "Rakken 6" sampler that includes seven tacos goes for $7.79. It includes that aforementioned pho taco (made with a generous hunk of flank steak that has been braised in an adaptation of his family's pho recipe for seven hours), yuzu carne asada, lemongrass al pastor (which is a spin on Vietnamese-style caramelized pork), and a coconut milk-enhanced, soupy, Vietnamese chicken curry.
If you are feeling like switching up your carbs, Nguyen's garlic crab fries—loaded with a huge handful of lump crab—is a steal for $5. When asked why he priced his food so ridiculously cheap, he responds that he is of the In-N-Out school of thought. "I'd rather get the volume and get more people in," he says. It's a philosophy that is slowly but surely working for him; as we speak, a mother stops in with her son to pick up an afterschool pho beef burrito for takeout.
For Nguyen, the marriage of Vietnamese flavors with tortillas was a no-brainer. "When you analyze it deeply, both of the foods have a lot of crossover flavors: plenty of lemon or lime, lots of offals in soups like menudo or pho, and lots of spiciness. Growing up, I would eat Mexican dishes like campechanas and menudo on Sunday mornings along with my dad. I would just imagine that I was eating Vietnamese food but done by Mexican people, since the flavors were so similar."
Eventually, Nguyen's dream is to open up a traditional Vietnamese seven-course beef restaurant in the middle of Koreatown, but after savoring my pho taco and wishing I had ordered five more of just those, I wouldn't be surprised if his dream concept turns into a seven-course taco restaurant as well.