Just like its namesake flower, Lotus Asia’s Best is quietly blossoming into an intriguing addition to the local food scene, specifically with spot-on authentic Vietnamese dishes.
Lotus opened with little fanfare in February 2011, on the roundabout in the historic Railroad Square District of San Luis Obispo. There’s a relaxing, dog-friendly patio outside, and a comfortable interior with two seating areas. There’s also a buffet setup stocked with fresh meats, vegetables and sauces so you can create your own Mongolian stir fry, a menu feature left over from the previous establishment.
“We decided to keep that because there was still an existing clientele who really liked it,” said Lotus’s owner, Alexandra Nguyen. However, her real passion lies in the flavors and traditional dishes of her own heritage and the science of cooking.
“I’m enjoying introducing people to the Vietnamese culture,” said Nguyen, “and so many people are embracing it.” (She’s also offering a good selection of draft beers, especially for a place of this size. Currently, there are 11 taps, but Nguyen’s aiming for 17, with selections such as Lagunitas IPA, Chimay and several Asian beers.)
Though Nguyen’s background is in the medical field (she had a chiropractic and acupuncture practice in Houston, Texas), her culinary touchstone goes all the way back to her grandmother’s busy food stand in Vietnam. The recipes at Lotus are adaptations of “what I grew up with, what my mother taught me.” That includes the third-generation recipe for the crispy baguettes (baked to Nguyen’s specifications by Edna’s Bakery in San Luis Obispo) used in the toasted bánh mi sandwiches.
It’s important to get the bread right in this traditional Vietnamese fare (pronounced “bun me”) — otherwise it’s just a sandwich. The other ingredients are grilled meat or tofu, housemade aioli, cucumber, jalapeno, cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon radish. All in all, it’s a happy combination of crunch, a little hit of heat, and a bit of richness from the aioli (some versions use pâté).
Another authentic dish at Lotus is the hearty Vietnamese rice noodle soup called Pho (pronounced “fuh”). Here, the fun begins with stock that’s made “with about 20 to 25 pounds of bones in each batch and simmered for at least 12 hours,” said Nguyen. In addition to the noodles, each bowl comes with green onions, cilantro, and your choice of meat: beef, chicken, roasted duck, or — for the more adventurous palate — the special combo of steak, brisket, tendon and tripe. Each steaming bowl is also served with a plate of bean sprouts, basil and mint leaves, lime wedges, jalapeño, and additional cilantro that you may add as you like.
Other items on the focused menu include spring rolls and egg rolls, noodle and rice bowls with your choice of proteins and a la carte additions, and even Mandarin Firecracker Fries tossed with a mixture of Chinese Five Spice, chilies, lemon and orange zest, and served with housemade dipping sauce. Also, be sure to check the specials’ board for dishes such as Caramelized Claypot Chicken or Vietnamese fondue (cooked in a hot broth akin to the Japanese shabu-shabu).
Nguyen is hoping to start serving dim sum and possibly even open for breakfast in the future. The latter will happen “when I find someone to sleep for me,” she joked, adding that “I do know how hard it is to have a restaurant. Your passion, your love for it really has to be there — I guess it’s just in me, and it’s music to my ears when Vietnamese customers say ‘it’s like my mother’s cooking’.”
Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at email@example.com.