I’m early, so I kill time by counting black-clad staffers buzzing about Little Sister’s immense bar and dining room. Tables are mostly unoccupied, though not for long. “I count 22,” I announce when my dinner date appears. “And I haven’t even started on the kitchen. Let’s drink.” We agree that the Old Drunken Master, a precise Old-Fashioned by another name, easily out- performs a treacly lychee martini.
Born in the spring amid the pandemic chaos all restaurants endured, the Spectrum location couldn’t be more different than LSXO, the petite O.C. sister of chef-owner Tin Vuong’s Little Sister empire based in L.A. County. As if making up for skipped meals, Irvine’s Little Sister seats 136, making it six times larger than LXSO. The stylized Vietnamese bistro opened to steady crowds and seems busier by the month. Inside, it’s a suggestive black box of a setting, planted opposite a big white box, the Apple Store—both so utterly suited to this glossy retail theme park.
Our spirit-forward cocktails need assertive openers, and five tender, floppy dumplings deliver. They’re a triumph of balance between a busy filling of pork, shrimp, and crab and the opposing black vinegar and crushed peanuts. Perhaps dumplings are an easy A, but from Vuong’s consistent kitchen, they’re depend- ably pleasurable. Some rather subdued pâté gets clobbered by sesame seeds encrusting a quite good baguette—both are almost more enjoyable apart than together. That crock of sour tomato jam? It’s a bizarre inclusion that goes uneaten. The menu has grown to accommodate the high-volume foot traffic, notably with a swath of lunch-only eats—deluxe takes on banh mi sandwiches and gentle chao rice porridges. Those who gripe of an $18 banh mi haven’t tried the roasted short rib version here. Beyond lunch, scores of dishes appear in categories such as Rice Paper, Noodles, Vegetables, Shellfish, and Meats, though many overlap the designations. The dumplings and pâté are listed under Essentials, which are starters that read like a bar menu. Think spiced-dusted pork rinds, octopus terrine, and puff pastry escargot poppers.
Years back, I heard a local chef proclaim green papaya salad is a perfect dish, and I’ve been trying to find the perfect version ever since. Vuong’s is top tier, sporting grilled prawns atop the crunchy-juicy papaya strands with ruby-red shards of salty “Viet beef jerky” that take it next-level. Also in the salad lane is lime-soaked raw beef and crispy shallots with a heap of rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), basil, and mint. Zesty to its core, it outshines the routine beef tartare.
Dishes are effusively presented, teeming with vibrant herbs, colorful rice, and proteins redolent with fresh char. The Viet crepe is so lavish, it’s hard to know where to dive into the explosion of pork belly, singed shrimp, juicy bean sprouts, and greens barely contained by the giant, griddle-hot crepe. Lemongrass-marinated pork chop is juicy with a whisper of sweet acid where the pan sears the meat, but it’s the homespun chicken-fat rice and fried egg that make this the plate you crave, even days later.
It’s my theory that big dinner houses must offer filet mignon and fresh salmon, or some interpretation of them, to be profitable in Orange County. Here the inevitable entrees are Shaky Shaky Beef and fried sea bass. Sizzling chunks of premium beef yield tender bites of fine-grained filet glistening with brown butter, wilting a bed of peppery watercress. Succulent fillets of rich, flash-fried sea bass easily take on scalding scallion oil, zingy ginger, red chile, and crushed peanuts for a lively and welcome salmon surrogate.
Desserts have an incongruous, catered personality—but Yelp photos suggest diners are eager to order a chocolate whatever with a logo on top. The warm pecan-date tart stood out as the least-fussy choice—and delivered pleasure that no fancy-pants meringue confection can match.
My unofficial head count of kitchen staff that night at Little Sister was nine. For a grand total of 31: an impressive feat during this labor shortage. It translates to a minor miracle when you consider how ably this rookie crew turns out Vuong’s engaging fare in such volume. Clearly, Little Sister is done acting small.
896 Spectrum Center Drive
5 BEST DISHES
Green papaya salad (goi du du)
Lime-marinated raw beef (bo tai chanh)
Viet crepe (banh xeo)
Pork chop (suon nuong)
Shaky Shaky beef
Lunch, $10 to $18
Starters, $8 to $19
Entrees, $19 to $55
The nearest parking is in the Target lot.