Lua Viet - Great Vietnamese in the West Sonoma County
By Ellery D. Margay
Lua Viet, a recent addition to Sebastopol’s international food scene, is easily missed if one is not looking for it. Sandwiched between a dance studio and a physical therapy office in a quiet corner of a Gravenstein Highway shopping center, it is perhaps this relative seclusion that lends the place its aura of serenity. Stop in for a bowl of hot pho or cool vermicelli and a tall glass of draft Sapporo, and watch the troubles of the outside world recede.
Since its purchase, the restaurant, whose name translates to “Vietnamese rice,” has received a full makeover. The interior is nothing if not chic, with dual floor levels, modern furnishings, and wall decor inspired by its signature grain. The feel of the space is fresh and airy—reminiscent of the cuisine itself.
Owner Ly Tran came to California well over a decade ago, and has spent much of that time immersed in the Bay Area’s blooming restaurant industry. He trained at Yao-Kiku, one of Sonoma County’s oldest sushi houses. Today, in addition to managing Lua Viet and acting as head chef, he and brother, Chinh Le, co-own Gohan, a popular sushi restaurant in Petaluma. When asked where he learned to cook Vietnamese, Ly smiles and shrugs; it’s his heritage. Raised in the southeastern province of Guang Ngai, his mentors were close to home—his Hanoi-born mother and a beloved grandmother, whose skillful cooking, in part, was the inspiration behind his latest venture.
Vietnam is home to one of the most vibrant flavor palettes in all of Southeast Asia. Savory flirts with sweet in an artful dance of flavor and texture; rich umami sauces and deep complex broths are accented by the surprising crunch of fresh vegetables, nuts, and fragrant herbs. Though at present the restaurant’s menu is far from extensive, many established favorites are represented—and we will likely see more in future. Banh mi are coming, as are boba teas, lunch specials, and a self-serve counter for the time-challenged diner.
For now, Viet’s stars are its phenomenal noodle soups. Pho (pronounced “phuh”), is a Vietnamese classic. Delicate cuts of meat—beef, chicken, or shrimp—are steeped in an aromatic broth and topped with bean sprouts, lime, and assorted herbs. The bun bo hue, a spicy version featuring beef shank, tendon, brisket, and pepper ham has long been a specialty in Ly’s family, and no shortcuts are taken; the brisket is braised for 6 – 8 hours, just how grandma made it.
Here the health conscious verve of the West County is clearly visible; most ingredients are organic and locally sourced, soy sauce is gluten free—as are many popular dishes—and those inclined toward plant-based fare may choose from a variety of entrees and apps—vegetarian pho, refreshing spring rolls with creamy peanut sauce, or my personal favorite, the vegetable noodle stir-fry—wide chow fun noodles, seasonal veggies, and crispy tofu tossed in a house-made brown sauce of highly addictive deliciousness. Other items, such as the spicy kimchee lettuce wraps and kobe beef tacos, are a nod to Ly’s Japanese background.
This is Vietnamese with a twist—a perfect marriage of tradition and innovation—but at heart, the food remains true to its roots. “It’s comprised of ingredients that, when eaten together, remind me of family,” says Ly; “it’s like walking down memory lane.”
OPEN every day from 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM.