Executive chef and restaurant owner James Vu doesn’t shy away from the spotlight at La Brasa, 1310 NW 25th St.
The restaurant’s website features Vu prominently, and that’s the way he wants it. La Brasa opened in September 2013 as strictly a Peruvian restaurant where Vu, a trained chef, worked the front of the house. After the first year, Vu took over as culinary director and transitioned the menu to incorporate flavors from around the globe with a nod to some of his favorite dishes and restaurants across the country.
“It’s my interpretation of South American and Peruvian flavors with a little bit of Asian fusion,” Vu said in a phone interview with Oklahoma Gazette, noting that the full name of the restaurant includes the phrase “international cuisine” for a reason. “Everything from the ambiance to the flavors and plating is based on my travels to Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Miami.”
Vu said that he travels to Miami once or twice a year because the city has a large Peruvian community and he has gone into the kitchen at La Mar, the restaurant of renowned Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, to pick up tips and ask questions.
Another Miami restaurant, Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, in the Wynwood Walls district of the city helped inspire the ambiance of La Brasa. Wynwood Walls is filled with all types of street art, which served as the model for Oklahoma City’s Plaza District art walls, and Vu brought the street art flair inside La Brasa.
When you walk into La Brasa, it immediately feels like more than a restaurant. The flashy and ornate chandeliers and neon lights almost give it the feel of a nightclub. It’s intentional on Vu’s part.
“The trend in New York and Los Angeles is going towards what people are referring to as ‘Clusteraunts’ where a restaurant will bring in DJs on the weekends,” Vu said. “That’s what I want La Brasa to get to gradually. I want people to take steps with me.”
La Brasa hosts a DJ on Saturday nights for a Latin dance night featuring salsa and reggaeton.
Trendy lights, DJs and weekend brunch cater to the millennial population, but the restaurant wouldn’t be popular if it wasn’t for the food.
The pollo a la brasa is essentially the national dish of Peru and serves the namesake of the restaurant. The chicken sits in a wet marinade with over 20 spices for at least 36 hours before it hits a charcoal rotisserie.
I couldn’t make my first trip to the restaurant without ordering its signature dish, and I was not disappointed. I ordered the half chicken ($16) with a side of cilantro rice and chimichurri asparagus.
The main dish arrived on wood plank in the shape of Oklahoma’s outline. I thought it was a neat trick at first, until I started to dissect the bird. The shape of Oklahoma isn’t exactly conducive to collecting chicken bones — there’s not much room on the panhandle.
I had to commandeer a side plate to get into the chicken, but it was well worth the effort. The flavor combination of the marinade and the hints of charcoal made it memorable. I don’t remember having such an intense reaction to chicken skin since I was a kid peeling off the crunchy outside of a KFC thigh.
The La Brasa version is smoky, a little spicy and totally delicious. I actually preferred the chicken without the addition of either a creamy cilantro or pepper aji, both of which are traditional Peruvian sauces and tasty on their own merit, because it covered up the unique flavor of the chicken.
Accompanying the chicken were cilantro rice and asparagus, the latter of which was the star of the side dishes. The cilantro rice was fine, but it pales in comparison to the cilantro rice at Moore’s Himalayas Aroma of India. The asparagus picks up the chimichurri, which is like a South / Central American pesto, along with the smokiness of the grill and acidity of pickled onions.
The Peruvian version of pollo a la brasa is often served as street food with a side of French fries and salad. The half order of chicken supplied enough meat for three meals. I put leftovers inside a grilled tortilla for a next-day lunch.
I opened the meal with an order of Korean kalbi tacos ($12). Three tacos in warm corn tortillas are topped with beef short rib cooked in a Korean barbecue marinade, Asian slaw, kimchi and chipotle mayo.
Slow-cooked short ribs are one of my favorite ways to eat beef, but I can sometimes be wary of ordering when eating out because it can be dry and overcooked. The La Brasa version tasted like your grandma’s pot roast with a little heat and Korean spices. The slaw and kimchi provided crunchy and soft versions of cabbage, with a little heat from the mayonnaise. I would’ve liked to see one more crunchy element on the taco — perhaps peanuts — but overall, I was happy with the dish that could’ve sufficed for a meal.
Vu said the Korean tacos are his nod to Los Angeles’s Kogi food truck that first introduced Korean-Latino fusion to the masses. Vu is of Vietnamese descent but admitted that Korean food is one of his favorites.
“I grew up going to Korean House in Del City, and I go to Washington, D.C. where I have a lot of cousins, some of whom are married to Koreans, so I’m always around it,” he said. “No trip to Los Angeles is complete without visiting Koreatown for barbecue.”
In addition to the signature chicken, Vu said the ceviche trio ($22), miso-glazed Chilean sea bass ($37), dolsot bibimbap ($22) and lomo saltado ($20) are the most popular dishes. Vu’s sea bass is an homage to chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s miso-glazed black cod. Bibimbap is a traditional Korean dish featuring marinated beef, grilled rice and lots of colorful vegetables. The lomo saltado combines sliced beef tenderloin with tomatoes and onions and is tossed in a soy sauce and red wine vinegar.
“The flavors range from Korean and Vietnamese to Peruvian, Argentinian and Brazilian,” Vu said. “I wanted the menu to reflect places I’ve been and the food I’ve enjoyed from around the world.”
La Brasa International Cuisine
1310 NW 25th St.
What works: Pollo a la brasa lives up to the hype, and Korean short rib tacos are like a more flavorful Sunday pot roast.
What needs work: The plating is cute, but impractical.
Tip: Try the chicken without dipping sauces.
Print headline: International impact; La Brasa is chef James Vu’s chance to share his love of food from around the world.