When The Spice Table closed back in 2013 (thanks a lot, MTA), the downtown restaurant’s devotees were understandably crushed. Chef Bryant Ng’s Southeast Asian cuisine, including dishes like black pepper crab toast and a very sultry laksa, had added some serious excitement to the food scene at a time when our city’s collective palate was really evolving.
Of course, now we have the ultimate reprieve that is Cassia, the Santa Monica brasserie that Bryant opened last year in collaboration with his wife Kim Luu-Ng, Josh Loeb, and Zoe Nathan, where marrowbone holds court in steaming tureens of pot-au-feu, and the charcuterie platter features Vietnamese meatloaf and Sichuan lamb ham.
Still, despite all that, the seafood bar, and a green papaya salad that will knock your socks off, something has been missing all along: a burger. And not just any burger. Back in the Spice Table days, Ng’s lunchtime menu, a much more casual affair than dinner, included The Spice Table Burger, and it was as delicious as it was understated. Inspired by burgers served at Pie ‘N Burger, Apple Pan, and In-N-Out, it came on a standard grocery store bun and was blissfully topped with American cheese.
It was so good, and we are so happy it’s back as part of Cassia’s new lunch menu that debuted this week. Now re-named the Cassia Burger, the incarnation still features ground prime short rib seasoned anchovy salt (an addition that “brings out the beefiness of the meat” according to the chef) and is stacked with curry-brined pickles, shallot mayo, plus sambal to add some sweet heat. “All these things are done in moderation so that it should still resemble a West Coast burger, but with a unique Southeast Asian character,” says Ng.
There are a few updates. While the chef tells us all the ingredient proportions are the same, this new take is bigger. “It still eats like a Spice Table burger, but there’s just more of it,” he says. Also, the basic bun has been replaced by Nathan’s from-scratch version, which has, according to Ng, “the same unobtrusiveness of a commercial bun, but made with more love.” You can opt for cheddar cheese now, too. The chef believes sharp cheddar cheese “adds another dimension” but admits that the nostalgia factor of the American cheese is irreplaceable.
Ng says that people have been asking him to bring his burger to Cassia since day one, and he was happy to comply. When asked if he could have done a lunch menu without it, he explains, “The lunch menu could still exist without the burger, but me, my wife Kim, our entire staff, and a bunch of friends from The Spice Table would be pretty pissed. Better to not piss off the wife.”
As far as service goes, the new lunch at Cassia will be less casual than it was The Spice Table. While the downtown restaurant followed a quick-service model during daytime hours, Ng believes the brasserie setting demands something a little more formal. “At Cassia, I wanted to explore the more casual side of cooking, but still have the table service you’d expect of a brasserie.”
Dinner time hits, like the pot-au-feu, are still available, but there’s also a Chinese chicken salad and sandwiches, from chickpea curry to a Vietnamese-leaning french dip, served on their naan-ish, clay oven-baked bread.
“I want the lunch environment at Cassia to be conducive to either a quick dine-and-dash scenario, a more formal business affair, hanging out with friends for a leisurely lunch, or an old-school three-martini lunch,” says Ng. “They apparently still exist—it already happened on our first day of lunch service.”