Down on the Boulevard

Posted on December 7, 2010 – 2:30 AM | by OldManFoster
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By Becky Grunewald  Photos by Scott Duncan

At various points along its length, Franklin Boulevard can be charming (think Gunther’s neon ice cream scooper), charitable (as with St. Patrick’s Thrift Store and Home for Children), industrial (the stark Campbell’s soup factory), and on many stretches, somewhat desolate and desperate.  Franklin can’t boast a city council-designated ethnic area a la “Little Saigon” on Stockton Boulevard, but shopping and eating there can sometimes feel more like being in Mexico than in the US. Franklin Boulevard contains some of our finest Mexican cuisine, including the magnificent tortas at El Abuelo and Cuidad Nezahualcoyotl, the ceviche at Mariscos Mazatlan, and the tamales and carnitas by-the-pound that folks routinely line up for at La Esperanza.  These are my standbys, but each trip down Franklin can yield a new culinary delight.

A fellow Franklin enthusiast, DJ Rick Ele (see “My Dinners with Ele” in the January, 2010 MidMo) has been hyping King Pham to me for months, but I knew I really had to go there when DJ Larry Rodriguez leaned over while playing a set at Shady Lady to say, “Have you been to King Pham yet? It’s fucking great!”  Two out of two gourmand DJs agree!

King Pham is an ultra-janky Thai/Lao place across from the Campbell Soup factory on Franklin.  I can’t give you the address, because believe it or not, it’s not on the internet.  You can find millions of pictures of Miley Cyrus’ underage camel toe, but not this key bit of information.  Inside (King Pham, not the camel toe – that would be illegal – for now) the booths and flooring are worn, but it’s brightened up by two wall-length murals of sailboats and abstract shapes.The menu contains dishes with multiple innards, along with the admonition to “please ask your server for details relating to any item that you do not fully understand.”  I was familiar with the term “bible tripe” (from one of the cow’s three stomach chambers, the one that’s not smooth or honeycombed), but not with the ominous sounding “M.T. Chain.”  I heeded the admonition and asked our server.  He laughed uncomfortably and said, “cow insides, lungs and other things,” in a tone clearly intended to warn me away.  I allowed myself be warned, this time.

The angel wings at King Pham (chicken wings stuffed with ground pork and glass noodles) only served to remind me how sublime the wings at Vientiane in West Sac truly are.  At King Pham they’re batter coated and deep fried, so they lacked the delicious skin of Vientiane’s version, and also the strong lemongrass flavor.  The Hmong sausage – made in-house at the small meat store two doors down – also let me down a little bit.  It was dry and reminiscent of kielbasa, and again, lacked the lemongrass flavor that is the signature of this style of sausage.  What does King Pham have against lemongrass?  The beef larb was much better, perfectly spiced with chilies and rustically studded with chopped mint and cilantro, although less cilantro-heavy in flavor than other Lao larb around town.

An entrée of khao soy, a Burmese-influenced soup that is rare on local menus, was like a hearty bowl of sunshine.  The lemon leaves used for flavoring lightened up the peanut-oil infused broth, and the combo of rice noodles and ground pork yielded bite after satisfying bite.  I’ll be back to conquer you, M.T. Chain!

Siam Restaurant (5100 Franklin Blvd.) is another Thai restaurant on Franklin, albeit one that is much closer to Downtown and that lacks any Lao influence in the cuisine.  The interior is quite different, as well.  It’s warm and inviting inside, with lemon-colored walls and Thai knick knacks displayed in a glass case.

The menu contains all the Thai standards, so I took the cue and didn’t get too adventurous.  The pad Thai was insipid and overly sweet, which I find to be woefully true of much of the Thai food in Sacramento. Luckily, the yum neua (grilled beef salad) arrived and awakened the taste buds that the pad Thai had lulled to sleep with its vivid combination of rare steak, salty Thai fish sauce, chilies, and mint.

The intense richness of coconut milk can either carry the subtle herbs and flavors of a Thai curry, or simply blanket the mouth with fat, and the green curry at Siam thankfully did the former.  Crisp green beans, grassy Thai eggplant, and tender shrimp swam in a pistachio-green sauce that yielded fragrant hits of lime leaves, lemongrass, and cilantro.  The meal was accompanied by nutty Jasmine rice, cooked perfectly.

My courteous server was available at a glance throughout the meal and was almost comically quick to refill my water glass when it dipped below absolute fullness.  When I noticed that both other occupied tables had ordered a huge bowl of soup that was served with a tray of fresh herbs and bean sprouts, he was there to let me know it was a “seafood noodle soup.”

On my second visit I ordered that soup (how could I not?), which took me on an emotional roller coaster.  I was ravenous, and at first I was enamored of the caramel-y broth laced with crispy dried garlic, scallion, and sprigs of cilantro.  My heart quickened when I glimpsed the purple squid tentacles.  But over time, the sweetness in the broth became cloying and the fish balls tasted like the freezer from which I suspect they came.  As I finished I was crestfallen to realize I would probably not order this dish again.  Seafood noodle soup, it’s not you, it’s me.  No wait, it’s you.

Between King Pham and Siam Restaurant is a little slice of Mexico known as El Michoacano (5681 Franklin Blvd.) and upon entering and scanning the yellowing review from The Suttertown News circa 1986, I experienced one of those “how I have never been here?” moments that are increasingly rare for me.  The front door of El Michoacano swings right onto an open kitchen which is framed by brick arches, and there is seating to either side.  There’s a delightful painting of the original El Michoacano trailer decorating the bright orange interior, which also contains a Catholic shrine.

Venerable Yelper Dane Henas suggested ordering the huarache, but from the texture and speed with which it arrived I detected a reheated masa platform, and the underwhelming adobada on top tasted mostly of chili powder.  The asada taco was unacceptably gristly.  However the excellent carnitas – which taste remarkably similar to the carnitas at the gold standard La Esperanza – galloped into my belly to save the day and then my dome was blown by a humble nopales taco.

The wonderfully oily cactus was a tart counterpoint to the sautéed onions and tomatoes in the taco.  This is no mere consolation prize for the vegetarian, this is a vegetable-based taco that can stand shoulder to shoulder with its meat brethren.  I’ll be back to have my dome blown again and again, and to give them another chance to prepare my huarache to order, as I suspect they do when the restaurant is more crowded.

Three meals on Franklin provide three more restaurants to put in my rotation, and three more reasons to cruise this gritty, fascinating boulevard.

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  1. One Response to “Down on the Boulevard”

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    By Melanie on Dec 7, 2010 | Reply

    Thanks so much for this article. I just bought a house off of Franklin south of 12th Ave. and I love the neighborhood. We’ve got La Esparanza for delicious pan dulces, Siam has a killer frog leg dish, and Morant’s Sausages. Let’s not forget the “please don’t rob us” look of Scott’s Burger Shack. It’s by far one of my favorite streets in town. Obviously for food reasons, but also for others. 🙂

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