James Vu is trying to have it both ways with his restaurant, La Brasa. And he just might do it.
When it opened a few years ago, La Brasa was solely focused on Peruvian cuisine. And, as someone who loves Peruvian food, I was extremely happy with the meals I had there.
In fact, I noticed my old review from THE NEWSPAPER THAT SHALL NOT BE NAMED mounted on the wall as I went in. It must have been a good one to hang around so long.
In the intervening years, owner/chef Vu began bringing in Asian influences and expanding from Peruvian dishes to encompass more of South America.
He’s also put in work to change the culture. La Brasa is a restaurant, but it’s also a nightclub. It’s a great place to eat, but there’s a killer bar and plenty of spectacle. Come March, he’s planning to double down on that mission by adding a DJ booth, bottle service and further refining the look of the space.
The changes to La Brasa are definitely not aimed at me. I’m too old. I like to sleep too much. The DJ booth and dance club vibe are for the next few generations who crave a sense of grandeur and spectacle that are wasted on me. La Brasa aims to bring that big city party to OKC.
And, at that, I’d usually say goodbye. Except that La Brasa’s food is just so damn good. I’ll be in for the blue plate special, sure, but I’ll be in nonetheless.
Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way right now: Yes, La Brasa still has that great Peruvian-style roasted chicken. Whatever changes may come, pollo a la brasa ($16 for half, $28 for a whole bird) isn’t likely to go anywhere.
Marinated, rubbed down with 20 spices and roasted to a succulent perfection, it’s the dish that put La Brasa on the map. While Vu is still proud of the old bird, he also hopes people will give the rest of the menu a try.
For an appetizer, I tried the Korean Kalbi tacos ($12) and, you know, wow. I’m never going to be mad at braised short ribs, especially in a Korean barbecue marinade. The meat is savory, buttery and meltingly tender. What sets these apart from most is the gentle application of Asian slaw, kimchi and chipotle mayonnaise. The beef stays front and center with support from the added fixings.
Maybe this is just me, but usually Asian slaw tends to overpower dishes. Too much flavor. Too much texture. It’s a garnish that has no chill. That said, I wouldn’t have minded a liiiiiitle more kimchi. Granted, I’m a kimchi freak, but I think a touch more heat would work well with the fatty beef.
Another appetizer I enjoyed was the candied Brussels sprouts ($9), which really ought to be on every menu in some capacity or another. For anyone concerned about bitterness, these are the sprouts for you thanks to a generous application of Sriracha, honey and lime vinaigrette. It’s not that you can’t taste the Brussels, but the sauce definitely adds a sweet kick to the caramelized sugars in the buds. There’s bacon in there, but it’s pretty subtle. Ditto with the shredded parmesan on top. The dish could probably do without the cheese and still satisfy all comers.
But if there’s a “must” among the appetizers, it’s the ceviche mixto ($15).
A mix of seafood is marinated in lime juice, which firms it up and infuses it with a burst of sour power. The fish hangs out with sweet potatoes, avocado, thin-sliced red onion and Peruvian corn (almost like Corn Nuts, but classier).
It’s light. It’s an intoxicating blend of textures and flavors. Chef Vu cranked mine up to 11 by adding a little chimichurri and chili oil to mine and I’d suggest it to anyone. I nearly scarfed it down before I had a chance to get a picture.
(About the pictures: La Brasa is a pretty dim, moody restaurant. Sorry for how that translates to the art. Needless to say, the food looks 100x better than it appears here.)
Speaking of heat, I had a flashback to Mexican restaurants of my youth when the server at La Brasa urged me not to touch the still-sizzling cast-iron skillet holding the dolsat bibimbap ($22). In fairness, I definitely look like the kind of guy who would touch a hot pan. It’s part of my “charm.”
The skillet crisped up the rice beautifully and the flank steak was incredibly supple and flavorful. La Brasa piles on the veggies, too, with zucchini, carrots, spinach, shitake mushrooms (not technically a vegetable, I know), and a healthy dose of kimchi and pickled papaya. On top, a fried egg, which you can mix into the dish.
The wonderful thing about bibimbap is that every bite can be different. There are so many combinations of ingredients you can get that it’s a meal you actually need to pay attention to. It’s not a homogenous lump of ingredients. It’s a lovely swirl of sauce and meats and pickles and rice.
You shouldn’t mindlessly eat food. Especially not food this wildly variable.
From Korean, we veer back into Peruvian with lomo saltado ($20). Considered by many to be Peru’s national dish, lomo saltado is essentially a steak and potato stir-fry with a ton of added spice.
La Brasa changes it up by replacing the traditional flank steak with diced filet mignon and the difference is immediately apparent. While flank is more flavorful, chef Vu harnessed his skills to imbue the filet with tons of beefiness while retaining its incredible tenderness.
The steak is cooked with a potato medley (including Peruvian purple potatoes and sweet potatoes) and topped with crispy potato strings. But the ingredient I was most taken with were the cold-smoked cherry tomatoes. They had the solid texture of a fresh tomato, but each one was waiting to burst with smokiness. Truly a great take on a classic dish.
Vu is a skilled mimic and he’s brought one of Nobu’s best dishes to OKC with the miso-glazed Chilean sea bass ($37). La Brasa’s version replaces Nobu’s black cod with sea bass, but the result is the same: a smooth, moist piece of fish that gently flakes apart into bite-sized chunks. The flavor comes from that sweet and salty miso glaze, boosting the dish’s umami punch.
Situated on top of garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus, it’s a classic. For anyone who fears “fishy” fish, this is an easy choice.
I tried a few drinks, including the very popular Lotus Flower ($12), which was definitely floral, but struck me as a bit medicinal. Not a deal-breaker, but when compared to the Pisco Sour ($11), my choice is easy.
The Pisco Sour lives up to its name with a big fruity, sour burst out of the gate that quickly fades into a smooth sweetness. It’s a dangerous cocktail for food lovers, because it tastes so good and goes down so easy you could easily drink more than you intend.
I’m impressed, just as I was when I wrote my last review of La Brasa. The menu has changed. The look has changed. The atmosphere has changed (and continues to change). But the restaurant still delivers on its promise of delicious food and attentive service. As the restaurant scene continues to evolve, La Brasa is doing its part in ensuring it’ll be here for years to come.
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Korean Kalbi tacos - $12
Ceviche mixto - $15
Dolsat bibimbap - $22
Miso-glazed Chilean sea bass - $37
Pisco sour - $11