How does a Mexican-born conceptual artist open up a Vietnamese restaurant in Echo Park with a menu that includes classic noodle dishes as well as pho-flavored tacos? For Jose Sarinana, the answer reflects not only his interest in food and cooking but his life as well. The public will get a chance to sample the 34-year-old’s combination of cooking techniques and cultures beginning this Friday when his new restaurant – Xoia Vietnamese Eats – is scheduled to open in Echo Park. Sarinana’s transition from artist to chef started about four years ago when he found himself cooking for other artists over a wheelbarrow-turned-barbecue grill during an artist-in-residency program in Maine. “People were coming over to see what kind of food I was cooking,” Sarinana said. “They didn’t care about my art anymore.”
While Sarinana made mostly tacos for his fellow artists, the Angeleno Heights resident also had a strong love for Vietnamese food that grew out of his relationship with his wife, Thien Ho, who he first met on the tennis courts near Echo Park Lake when both attended Belmont High. Ho’s family is rooted in the Vietnamese city of Hoi An, which boasts its own unique regional cuisine and dishes. It’s the flavors and foods of Hoi An that Sarinana drew inspiration from to create some of the dishes for Xoia. While Sarinana does more roasting and braising than is common in Vietnam, his cooking got rave reviews, even from Ho’s parents. That’s when he realized that “I might be on to something.”
After returning from Maine, Sarinana took a break from sculpture and painting to start a family – the couple have two toddlers – and help tend to the couple’s Silver Lake nail salon, Gloss. When it came time to get back into the art studio, Sarinana realized he got more enjoyment out of making meals than art. In a matter of days, Sarinana and his wife decided that he would open up a Vietnamese restaurant. They spent one night looking for a location and came upon the former Par Paint store at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Lemoyne Street only a few blocks from their home. Soon after they had signed a lease and committed themselves to opening their first restaurant. “You got to be a little crazy to do this,” Sarinana said.
Once in the kitchen, Sarinana discovered that some of the skills and philosophies he used as an artist served him well as a cook. As an artist, he often used the scraps and leftover material from one artwork to create another. “When I started cooking, I realized that cooks do that to,” said Sarinana. Thus was born the Xoia pho taco, which features the meat used to flavor the restaurant’s pho soups. “It looks just like a taco,” Sarinana said. But “the taco meat has got all the pho flavor from the broth.”
The menu at Xoia will remain dominated, however, by Vietnamese favorites – such as pho soups and banh mi sandwiches – as well as some more uncommon regional dishes, such as Cau Lau noodles, which will require Sarinana to import noodles and other ingredients from Vietnam.
There will also be other novel dishes, such as a “bunrria,” which combines a Mexican-style birria meat stew on a bed of rice noodles.
“That was my wife’s idea.” Sarinana said. “I thought it was weird and then I had it, and I had it twice and by the third time I got it. It just tastes good.”
Bottom photo from Xoia Vietnamese Eats