L.A. has become a beacon for innovative chefs and international flavors. From the 405 to the 10 to the 2 and beyond, Angelenos can hit all the spots: bibimbap in Ktown, tsukemen on Sawtelle, pad krapow gai in Thai town, or San Gabriel Valley for the best xiao long bao. As the sanctuary city continues to grow, so too does the restaurant scene.
With a hungry audience, Fiona chefs Nicole Rucker and Shawn Pham celebrate their differences—pie and Banh Mi—for a winning combination.
The moment blue ribbon-winning pastry goddess Nicole Rucker met chef Shawn Pham, their bond was cemented: “we instantly clicked…arguing about food,” says Rucker, as she slides over a slice of her famous key lime pie, a sweet and tart rich lime custard on a graham cracker crust, covered in a signature sour whipped cream. She adds with a smile, “it’s not a given that we’re going to agree all the time, and I think that’s good, because I look to him for a trusted opinion.”
The duo met when pastry genius Rucker, mastermind behind the habit-forming baked goods at Gjusta and Cofax, was developing her new cookbook, Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers; Pham was hired to test recipes. The veteran chef, who is known more for his savory Banh Mi Salad than for his sweet Lemon Chess Pie, meticulously tested each of Rucker’s recipes. “I thought I might get a different answer out of him than if I had a pastry cook recipe-test,” Rucker explains. Indeed, since pastry was a new technique for Pham, he provided Rucker with a fresh perspective. “Some of the recipes were total failures, and he provided really good feedback on them.”
For her part, Rucker had been conceptualizing a restaurant since she was in college, but the shared connection with Pham, it turned out, was the missing ingredient: “Towards the tail end of the recipe testing [for the cookbook] I realized [it] would be really great if we did [the] restaurant together.” A year later, and with a feature in the LA Times, their all-day cafe Fiona on Fairfax debuted to a slew of buzz.
The goal was to create a menu that represented a blend, but done in an entirely new way: a departure from the ubiquitous California seasonal café with avocado toast. Fiona is thus a response to Rucker and Pham’s opinion that “the restaurant industry needs to be less homogenous,“ says Rucker.
Rucker initially tried to limit the number of pies on the menu, in an effort to focus on other components, like house-made bread, but Angelenos wanted what the “pie queen” was known for: her not-too-sweet, a little bit salty, cultworthy desserts. “We [now] have six pies on the menu, and there will be even more soon.” Rucker’s KCRW award-winning Blueberry Blackberry Ginger Pie sits alongside new offerings, like a Honey Peanut Butter Pretzel Pie.
Pham’s Vietnamese-influenced dishes dotted the menu, complementing the delectable pastry offerings, but as each became standout hits, the menu shifted. “What the neighborhood was saying was that they wanted pie, but they also wanted chicken-and-cabbage salad, and they also wanted turmeric cod with dill and onions…that’s what they come here for,” says Rucker. After considering the dining landscape in Los Angeles, where a range of culinary titans have recently planted roots, the team decided to focus on what made Fiona unique. So the duo doubled down on Pham’s Vietnamese roots.
“Vietnamese food is textural, it’s sour sometimes, it’s hot, it’s sweet, and it also…has a lot of brightness…” says Rucker. Dishes like Mr. Lee’s Marinated Tofu with smoky eggplant purée, roasted mushrooms, and red chili-marinated tofu offer a cornucopia of flavors and textures.
Pham’s unique perspective on cuisine and Rucker’s expertise in sweets combine to push boundaries across the menu, which offers an array of bites: from Dahi Toast with yogurt, chutney, and curry leaves on house-baked country bread, to house favorite Vietnamese Beef Stew, a richly spiced broth laden with tender short ribs, carrots, and a crusty, individual baguette for dipping.
So how do you order a balanced meal of Southeast Asian fare with American pie? For Rucker, a dinner for four would go something like this: “Key Lime Pie for dessert, then I would get the laarb seasoned beef tartare, and then the pork ribs which are first cooked in their own fat, then put on the grill with miso glaze covering them to caramelize; they have a lot of umami.” She recommends a bright appetizer: “Something cold, and nice and fresh in the beginning, like the Hamachi crudo.” Start to finish, front to back, however you slice it, a meal at Fiona is bound to be a thoughtful, innovative dining experience. And, be sure to order an extra pie to go.