Dza-Thao H. Le — the restaurateur everyone calls Lele — has opened a third restaurant staffed with chefs from the area’s oldest Vietnamese restaurants.
Lele East West opened last week at 5015 Tacoma Mall Boulevard in the former home of longtime Vietnamese restaurant Wendy’s II, which was owned by Wendy Au, now officially retired after also selling her Freighthouse Square Wendy’s restaurant in 2014.
Le had ties to Wendy’s II, as well as East & West Cafe, the former Tacoma Mall Boulevard restaurant after which Le’s restaurant is named. Chefs from the former East & West Cafe — including Le’s mother Tuc Dinh, who cooked there for 10 years — and Chi Nguyen, Ha Pham and Banh Sanh are in the kitchen at Lele East West. And former chef of Wendy’s, Minh Nguyen, occasionally helps at the restaurant.
It’s this newspaper’s policy to withhold criticism of food and service until after a restaurant’s first month, which is why the focus here is on atmosphere and menu highlights.
The made-over restaurant, with seating for more than 100 in the 3,200-square-foot restaurant, appears much more interesting inside than its strip mall exterior might telegraph. It’s handsome, but casual enough for a family outing with kids.
I found cushy booths and long wooden tables with seating for large groups. From floor to ceiling, wood tones melded with chocolate, copper and gold accents. A drop-beam ceiling framed the rear of the restaurant where there’s a full bar, and a row of booths divided two dining areas. Accordion light fixtures loomed over booths, and floating clouds of naked light bulbs were strung from front to back.
A LOOK AT THE MENU
The menu was just as Le promised before opening: a heavy emphasis on Thai and Vietnamese, just like her sister restaurants, with nods to Korean, Chinese, Malaysian and other far-flung Asian flavors. The sprawling 100-item menu listed favorites from Lele, but also dishes that harken to the menus of Wendy’s II and East & West Cafe.
Lunch and dinner are served daily at the restaurant.
Appetizers ($5-$12.99) ran the gamut from typical Vietnamese spring rolls to Saigon crepes, satay, fried prawns, tamarind chicken wings and soft shell crab. Of course, Vietnamese beef noodle soup ($8.50) was accounted for, but there also was a substantial list of Vietnamese and Thai soups ($8.99-$12.99), including seafood hot pot, tom yum, spicy beef and barbecue pork.
Salads covered broad segments of Asia ($9.99-$13.99), from a Thai-style crying tiger salad with sliced rib-eye to lettuce wraps, green papaya salad with Korean-style bulgogi and the Thai/Cambodian minced meat salad with the tangy dressing, larp (also called larb).
The entree menu is broken into curry, noodle and rice dishes, priced from $9.99-$12.99. Curry ($10.99-$12.99) choices stretched across the typical Thai flavors, but also a Vietnamese yellow curry and Indian-style curry. Noodles covered both egg and rice ($9.99-$11.99), with surprise offerings of Korean chap che and Malaysian noodles with Chinese sausage. Rice dishes ($9.99-$12.99) included the usual items one would expect on a Thai-Vietnamese menu, such as Thai lemongrass, dishes with peanut sauce, basil delight, crispy eggplant and golden cashew, but also more Korean bulgogi and an Indonesian style stir fry.
A seafood menu offered a variety of sea bass, salmon and halibut preparations, priced $15.99-$22.99.
A note about the menu: This looks to be a vegetarian’s mecca, with about 70 percent of the menu easily turned vegetarian, according to Le. Tofu is an option with the bulk of the menu. As with any dietary restriction, just be sure to verify with the kitchen that the dish can be made vegetarian.
Le opened her first Lele in 2001 in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood and later expanded to Gig Harbor.
Tacoma Mall: Lele East West, 5015 Tacoma Mall Blvd.; 253-302-3998.
Hilltop: Lele, 1012 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma; 253-572-9491.
Gig Harbor: Lele, 4747 Point Fosdick Drive, Gig Harbor; 253-514-6382.