Barbecue pork in your pajamas. Lemongrass chicken in your loungewear. Scallion bread in your skivvies.
Cassia has been serving a delectable blend of Vietnamese and French cuisine in downtown Santa Monica since 2015, garnering praise from food writers across the country for defining a Southern California cuisine that reflects the region’s ties to Southeast Asia and its farmers market ethos. Next Tuesday, chef Bryant Ng is opening Cassia’s Rice & Noodle Kitchen, a restaurant within a restaurant that will be available exclusively for takeout or on food delivery apps.
For most people, drooling over Cassia’s menu online is the closest they get to that rich, tangy laksa or that seabass infused with turmeric and lime — which, like most of the menu, will run you between $20 and $50.
Now, imagine a world where the best spicy dry noodles Cassia can offer were available for a little more than $10. And you could eat them while watching the Netflix food documentary that sparked your craving for something doused in chili oil in the first place.
Chefs in Cassia’s kitchen will be whipping up rice bowls and noodle soups with the same ingredients used in the main restaurant. Instead of sending the dishes out into the chic brasserie-cum-warehouse dining room, however, they’ll hand them off to a Postmates or UberEats driver who will deliver them to your door.
Ng said he and his business partner and wife, Kim Luu-Ng, have always wanted to create a restaurant that was more accessible. But to serve the quality of food Cassia is known for at a lower price point, something had to give.
“We all know the restaurant business is changing, and we don’t know in what direction it’s gonna head in,” Ng said. “The reality is every restaurant is going to have to look at its bottom line. Wages, rent and the cost of raw materials are all going up, but you can only charge so much for a dish.”
Those constraints meant Ng had to think creatively about where to cut costs.
“Why not create a kitchen within a kitchen?” he said. “The food will be prepared by the same people at Cassia with the same sourcing and care, but because it’s only delivery, we can pass on those savings to the guests.”
Cassia’s chef de cuisine John Stenbakken and sous chef Eleanor Hurtt developed a menu inspired by the rice and noodle dishes served in the main restaurant, featuring noodle soup with pork and shrimp wontons and lettuce cups with minced soybeans and mushrooms accompanied by plum hoisin sauce.
“The soul is still pretty much the same,” Ng said.
For most restaurants, though, delivery is incidental; the menu is not crafted around foods that travel or reheat well. Cassia’s fried cauliflower with fish sauce is a favorite of Ng’s, but he wouldn’t put it on the menu at Cassia Rice & Noodle Kitchen only for it to go soft while sitting in the back of a car.
So even though a delivery from the kitchen will probably spend up to half an hour in transit and arrive hot, Ng wanted to make sure the new menu would taste just as good at room temperature or reheated. He looked toward food he knew traveled well or tasted better the next day, such as Persian dishes from a restaurant in Glendale that he often takes to-go or French braised stews, which are left to sit overnight to absorb flavor.
“The test is, can you leave it out for five hours and eat it without heating it up,” Ng said. “Is it still tasty? The answer is yes.”
While some might worry that these new culinary frontiers could threaten brick-and-mortar restaurants, Ng believes they can coexist. People didn’t stop going to the movies when streaming services came out, and they won’t stop going to restaurants to spend time with friends and family, go on dates or do business, he said.
“I see it as a huge growth potential for the industry as a whole. For us, this is another source of revenue within the restaurant itself,” Ng said. “But the whole point is that we can now offer food at a lower cost that you can eat at home. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Cassia Rice & Noodle Kitchen will be available on Caviar, ChowNow, Postmates, Doordash and Uber Eats starting Tuesday. Its hours will be Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m. The menu will range from $8 to $15.