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Lemongrass leads blend of herbs and spices that set Phở Cali's chicken apart

It's a recipe that's been made for centuries in Vietnam. And yet lemongrass chicken has made a seamless transition across the world for diners of all palates and persuasions.


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  • | 9:50 a.m. October 19, 2022
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What's the dish:

It's a remarkably versatile blend of herbs and spices that could be served to people of all palates.

But you have to know what you're getting into before you order it.

Phở Cali's Lemongrass Chicken can be molded to your specific taste buds; you can have it spicy or mild or somewhere in between, and you can try it with a variety of different protein options.

Don't like chicken? You can order lemongrass tofu, shrimp or vegetables instead.

The X-factor? Chili peppers. They're chopped very fine and worked into the delicate balance of tastes.

"More spice? More chili," says Kimberly La, the chef and co-owner of Phở Cali with her husband Harrison La. 

"And if you don't want spice? No chili."

Kimberly and Harrison La are rocking palates with their traditional lemongrass chicken recipe. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)
Kimberly and Harrison La are rocking palates with their traditional lemongrass chicken recipe. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)
How it's made:

It all starts with quality ingredients and time to prepare. Every day, the Las get into the restaurant and chop the lemongrass, the onion, the peppers and the garlic very thin before anybody arrives.

And then, when you order the dish, it can be ready in as quick as five-to-ten minutes.

Kimberly La says that one misconception of preparing lemongrass chicken is how much of the lemongrass you actually use. You don't use the leaf, she says; you only use the stalk and throw the leaf away.

"You slice it, and you chop it really fine," she says. "Then you get the pan with a little bit of oil. You sauté the chopped lemongrass, chopped chili and curry powder. After that, you add in the chicken, tofu or shrimp; whatever protein or vegetables you like. Then you cook the chicken a little bit until it's brown.

"Then you add in the sauce and the coconut milk and you cook it down until the meat is done."

Tofu time:

Not everybody likes to eat meat. But that shouldn't stop them from trying this lemongrass recipe.

Harrison La says the tofu is there as a healthy option and that it carries the taste of the herbs and spices much the same way the chicken does.

"The tofu comes pre-fried with a little crust on the outside, but we cut it into cubes," says Harrison La of the lemongrass tofu. "And then we sauté it with the onion and the chili and the curry sauce."

The lemongrass and garlic are chopped very fine before being incorporated into cooking. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)
The lemongrass and garlic are chopped very fine before being incorporated into cooking. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)
The old country:

How would the dish be different if it were served in Vietnam? Kimbery La says the chicken would probably be served bone-in, and Harrison La says that coconut milk might not be part of the recipe there.

"We wanted to go healthier so we just used a boneless chicken breast," he says. "In Vietnam, they'd mix the white meat and the dark meat, the whole chicken. It would be served on the bone. But we strip out the bone."

Quest for perfection:

Harrison said his wife isn't formally trained; she grew up in the Vietnamese countryside and has spent decades teaching herself how to skillfully blend traditional recipes half a world away from home.

"She read a lot of cookbooks," says Harrison.

"And she kept modifying, learning and correcting to reach perfection in her cooking."

Harrison La says his business has thrived on Main Street for 17 years, and on a recent visit to Phở Cali, it was standing room only in the middle of the lunch rush. La says that many of his customers are regulars and that they come in and know what they want to eat without even looking at the menu.

And how has business changed on Main Street over the years?

"More restaurant and more competition," he says. "But competition is good. It brings the best out of you."

 

 

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