Lily’s Rob Lam Exults in His Work — And In His Chicken Wings
Lily on Clement is a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant from longtime Bay Area chef Rob Lam, who also owns and operates the upscale Perle Wine Bar in Oakland. He’s bringing his cheffy twists and playful spins to Vietnamese cuisine to the Richmond District, using top-quality product and produce.
For example, at lunchtime you’ll find a thinly sliced rare roast beef banh mi that comes slathered with shallot aioli and a pho au jus side dipper. And his bun rieu — a tomato crab noodle soup — features a plethora of crabs, including Dungeness, Alaskan snow, Maryland soft-shell, and Hokkaido king crab.
We sat down with Lam to talk more about Lily, as well his past, present and future.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
RESY: We understand you grew up in your family’s restaurant.
I was raised in Little Saigon, in Orange County. My mom owned Vien Dong restaurant on Westminster Avenue in Westminster from 1985 to 2000, eventually selling it to an aunt who ran it for another 10 years.
The food at Vien Dong was popular because it was essentially considered a Vietnamese deli, but without a sandwich in sight. We specialized in the food of the working class. Early morning and lunch dishes. Heavy with rice/noodle/bun bowls like Bun Rieu, Bun Thang, Bun Oc, Bun Gia Cay, Bun Vit Xao Mang. She was the first to do these dishes, moving away from the tried-and-true pho shops and banh mi shops. She gave the people real Vietnamese food, simple and honest. Her bowl of Bun Rieu in 1990 cost $4.50.
Some other dishes that she brought in later years really elevated the Vietnamese table, dishes like Bun Cha Hanoi, or Cha Ca La Vong, or her beloved Banh Tom Co Ngu (sweet potato and shrimp fritters wrapped up in herbs and lettuce wraps and dipped in Nuoc Cham).
The one thing I learned from watching my mom run her restaurant was that it takes hard f****** work to get happy. Why not get happy because of hard work. My mom worked her ass off, but she always loved it. Didn’t want to leave it. In fact, she just retired three months ago for a second time. Hopefully the last, she’s 82.
Sounds like she passed that love of food on to you.
I love to cook. I love the restaurant. I still love my mom’s restaurant. Still get excited to go to work. That’s the work ethic I try to instill in my kids: Love every day, don’t wait for the weekend to live.
What’s one of your favorite dishes on your menu?
I really love our bun cha Hanoi. It’s such a beautiful representation of what Vietnamese food is all about. Rooted in a plebeian sustenance-fulfilling cuisine, i.e. making a dollar out of 50 cents. Pork in all its iterations have barbecue, but the way we do it, the marinade, the caramelizing over coals, it all works into bringing out the inherent sweetness in the meat. It’s wrapped in lettuce with a bunch of herbs and some rice noodle and dipped in spicy fish sauce. Pretty much perfection without a single gram of butter added to the mix.
For the pork, we use Sakura Farms out of the Midwest. They are raising Japanese breed heritage pork in the Corn Belt. Great product. Our bun cha is unique only in that we grill the pork over binchotan charcoal. In Hanoi, they grill literally on the sidewalk over coal. It [makes] a huge difference to the flavor profile, one I haven’t been able to find in many Vietnamese restaurants serving it.
This dish is inspired by my mom’s cooking technique at her restaurant. She used to fill the grill up with marinated pork right before we opened. The smoke filled up and was vented through our hoods directly onto the waiting crowd outside. It was a beautiful thing to see and smell. I’m working to see if I can turn off my hoods and smoke up the interior.
What’s a perfect order at Lily?
I think the perfect order would be to start with our chicken wings, then the Hanoi BBQ Pork or cha ca la vong.
Chicken wings? Why are those special?
I’m proud of our wings. I know it’s rote for most chefs, you know kind of like calamari. But our motivation was to serve something familiar and delicious using shrimp paste.
We use fat chicken wings from Mary’s or Rocky Jr., whichever is bigger. We just do a classic Southern American fried chicken with it. Brined, coated in Wondra flour and fried twice. We want it to reflect a properly fried chicken. Then we do one swipe of our Shrimp Paste Glaze. Lots of chiles, sugar, numbing peppercorns, oranges and shrimp paste. Really spicy, funky, sweet glaze. Served with a side of Roquefort aioli to cut the spice.
What would you recommend to drink?
Our wine director is James Yu of Great China. We love his palate and the way his wines reflect more of an old-world flavor profile with the spice and sweet nuances in our food. His selection of wines is dictated by the mandate to find “rainbow unicorns” that no one else has. Small and compact wine program, with emphasis on small.
But if you ask me what people should drink, it should be our Sinh To drinks, Vietnamese smoothies using housemade yogurt. We add to that whatever is sweet and in season at the market. Right now, that’s Lucero Farms strawberries, KJ Orchard and Tory Farms stone fruits. The yogurt is made with condensed milk from Vietnam, a yogurt culture, and Alexandre Farms whole milk.
What else are you working on?
We just started our first family dining series, Lucy’s Table, in September. It was a very good test of what we can do on a more formal set menu format. We are developing these dishes in the hopes that we can utilize them at Lucy’s Bar. Lucy is partner in the restaurant and younger sister to co-owner Lily Lieu.
We purchased a liquor license and are looking to develop a bar concept that embraces low- and non-alcoholic beverages. Bun Bo Hue will be our anchoring dish, with Vietnamese street and bar snacks being offered. We look to provide an upscale option to the shot bars on Clement. We want to bring the same attention to detail at our bar as we have with Lily restaurant. Wait and see. Other than that, we’re just focusing on refinement, refinement, refinement.
What does the future hold? What else would you like to accomplish in the Bay Area?
Right now, I feel like I am achieving exactly what I’ve been trying to accomplish from the start of my career. I’m cooking food that is true to my heritage, utilizing the plethora of knowledge I’ve achieved through my career, as well as utilizing the farmers and purveyors I’ve come to know. I truly believe I became an executive chef at too young an age to really truly understand the magnitude of the responsibilities it entails. Experience got me here, but getting sober clarified everything.
Once I got sober, I started to see the discrepancies in my actions and motivations. I had a reckoning whereby I vowed to never not want to wake up and start my day fresh and clear and joyful. My day would start by prepping and cooking something joyful and delicious.
I feel as if there is a balance in my life where it’s no longer hard work and hard play, it’s just hard but truly rewarding days of work, creating and executing a vision. I hope to think that we are achieving this at Lily.