It is encouraging and fascinating to see how Chefs are finding a new path forward in light of the pandemic. We’ve heard the news of how COVID-19 has ravaged the restaurant industry, with countless restaurant closings, some never to return. Thanks to the excellent report from @PorkyBelly, we found out about An Com, a pop-up takeout eatery(?) from Chef Nguyen Bui, who worked for Chef James Syhabout (of Michelin 2 Star Commis (SF) fame) at a newer venture up north, before working for Rustic Canyon. Chef Bui had a new position lined up, but then the pandemic hit and the position was no longer available.
The result of these desperate times had him look towards his roots, and An Com was born, what he calls “Homestyle Vietnamese food”. Indeed, as we were eating this meal, it reminded us of our visit to Mai’s Kitchen in Little Saigon, which has been doing “family style” or “homestyle Vietnamese cooking” for many years.
Today marks a new location for An Com’s pop-up, in Pearl River Deli’s space(!). When we first heard it was appearing at Pearl River Deli, we were excited to see what wonderful dishes might come out of Pearl River Deli’s Chef-Owner Johnny Lee collaborating with Chef Bui; might there be some interesting hybrid of great Hong Kong / Chinese cooking fused with homestyle Vietnamese cooking?
Unfortunately, it seems (for now at least), there is no collaboration: It’s mainly Chef Bui using Pearl River Deli’s kitchen and space for his pop-up on PRD’s off days. Regardless, we were excited to try the menu!
Canh Chua Chay (Sour Soup with Tamarind, Pineapple, Tomato and Kong’s Squash Greens):
Wonderfully sour, a bit of sweet and some salinity. This was quite refreshing on this hot day. Little Saigon’s Mai’s Kitchen’s version tasted more potent and a bit more funk (in a good way), a bit more piquant punch as well, but this was clearly a more refined version and tasty.
Ca Tim Nuong (Marinated Charred Kong’s Eggplant with Scallion Oil, Fermented Pineapple):
This was probably the most “chef-ified” dish that really reflected cooking beyond old-school home cooking: There’s an incredible smokiness (without overpowering), but it disappears as you bite into the soft almost silky Eggplant. The Scallion Oil lent a great light onion-y fragrance, and the Fermented Pineapple was there for sweetness.
Thit Kho (Caramel Braised Pork Belly, Quail Eggs):
I love a great Pork Belly dish, so this was the most anticipated item for this order! First, it has to be said: The portion size is a bit precious. Those are tiny Quail Eggs you see in the above picture. We don’t need a monster portion of food, but when we opened this up it seemed like a mistake at first.
There’s a few small bites of mainly Pork Fat (it is Pork Belly, but compared to @PorkyBelly’s portion from the early pop-up days, this serving was mainly just scraps of fat). There was probably more Quail Egg than there was Pork Belly, which is unfortunate.
For the taste? It was mainly sweet with a bit of saltiness. Tasty. But a great Buta no Kakuni (Stewed Pork Belly) at a legit Japanese Izakaya, or a succulent Braised Pork at a good Shanghai restaurant (or the Taiwanese version) is more crave-worthy for our tastes. And we agree with @PorkyBelly that this dish needed a bit more something (like a Fish Sauce angle) to make it pop.
If the portion size were a bit more reasonable (at $15 (+tip)), we might order it again.
Com Ga (Poached Chicken, Burnt Star Anise Rice, Young Ginger Fish Sauce):
Even though An Com is a completely separate eatery from Pearl River Deli, with it being served out of PRD’s kitchen, it’s hard not to think on one of Pearl River Deli’s most standout items when eating An Com’s Com Ga (Poached Chicken Rice): Hainan Chicken.
Note: There were no reheating instructions included with the food (but to be fair the food arrived warm / hot), but after a drive back to the Westside, all of the food was room temperature / cold. So we did our best, and only quickly poached the Chicken pieces (for barely a minute), to try and have it warm / hot to eat. That quick poaching already turned the Chicken to a “medium well.” It seems like you have to eat this immediately in your car, or eat it cold / room temperature when you get home to preserve the texture.
But even the pieces that were still slightly pink and tender, the execution wasn’t as good as Chef Johnny Lee’s legendary Hainan Chicken Rice.
The Burnt Star Anise Rice tasted like regular Steamed Rice? We’re not sure if there wasn’t enough Burnt Star Anise, or they just didn’t make it for our order.
The Young Ginger Fish Sauce was fine, a nice accompaniment with the Chicken itself.
Pastelito (Banana Jam and Cream Cheese with Coconut Caramel):
Tasty. I liked the crisped puff pastry and the Banana Jam and Cream Cheese were balanced. The Coconut Caramel was very sweet, so just a small dab was sufficient.
Banh Cam Trung Muoi (Rice Flour Doughnuts, Sesame, Salted Egg Yolk, Mung Bean):
Visually this reminded us of the popular Dim Sum Dessert, Fried Sesame Balls (which we adore, so no complaints!). Taking a bite: Freshly fried, clean oil, not greasy, beautifully aromatic Fried Sesame Seeds give way to a crispy crunch, and then you get a bit of salinity from the Salted Egg Yolk tempered by Mung Bean mash with a light sweetness. Delicious!
An Com shows signs of promise from Chef Bui Nguyen, who presents simple, homestyle Vietnamese dishes in an elevated light. Overall, you can taste the quality and care the Chef is putting into each dish, but some are more successful than others. The Com Ga (Poached Chicken over Rice) was fine, but having recently had Pearl River Deli’s Com Ga Hoi An (Shredded Poached Chicken and Herb Salad over Turmeric Chicken Rice) or their legendary Hainan Chicken Rice, it’s hard to get excited by this version.
If our portion and execution of their Thit Kho (Caramel Braised Pork Belly) is what it will be like going forward, then at $15 (+ tip) for the tiny portion of mainly fat feels like bad QPR.
But look to their tasty Sour Soup with Tamarind, Pineapple and Tomato, or their delicate Ca Tim Nuong for the great potential for An Com. That masterful smokiness without overwhelming the palate, the supple Eggplant and Scallion Oil makes that dish shine and offers a hint into what An Com could be in the future.
(Order via their Instagam):