Little Saigon

Posted on September 18, 2008 – 8:44 PM | by beckler
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Local Hawaiian shirt aficionado and pap-meister R. E. Graswich recently did an on-air report about the burgeoning Little Saigon area of Sacramento, prompted by a story about it in Saveur (he pronounced it “Sav-oh”).  Here’s a sample sentence, “When most people around Sacramento hear the words “South Sac,” it’s usually bad news. Gang shootings, murders and mayhem. But a classy national food magazine is giving South Sac a big boost, calling it one of the top gourmet areas in the country.”  It was offensive to me and I’m sure to the thousands who live and work and eat in that area.  I’ve eaten around there hundreds of times, with nary a gunshot to be heard.  The hairiest thing I’ve had to navigate is the occasional language barrier.  I’d like to thumb my nose at Graswich’s provincial attitude by telling you about a few Vietnamese dishes that might be new to you.  Unless you’re Vietnamese, and if so, feel free to drop me a line giving me your recommendations and/or correcting any mistakes I have made.  In the interest of making the least mistakes possible, I am going to just use English characters and leave out the notations. 

QuanAt Quan Nemh Ninh Hoa you order the special, nem nuong.  There is no reason to order anything else.  If you glance around, you will see that that is what every other table is ordering. It costs 13.99 and serves two quite adequately. It’s usually served quickly, as soon as the pork can be grilled.  You’ll be brought two plates, a stack of stiff rice paper rounds, a bowl of hot water, assorted herbs (rau thom), cucumber, pickled vegetables (cu cai chua), green-leaf lettuce, seasoned skewered pork, crispy mini shrimp rolls, vermicelli with dried shrimp on top, and last but not least a silver wrapped gift of pork.  You soak the rice paper in the water until it starts to soften (it will soften some on your plate) and make a wrap stuffed to your liking.  The mini shrimp rolls are there to add a crunchy texture.  The garlic-y charred pork has a perfect balance of salty and sweet. Every imaginable combination of fillings is beyond delicious, and the only superfluous ingredient is the bland and goopy peanut dipping sauce provided.  Forgo that, and use the chopped chili peppers in vinegar to add heat if you want it.  Each bite will be a flavor journey through fresh herbs, and vinegar crunch, and savory meat, and crunchy fried bits, and springy noodle and each time the ride is over you’ll want to get in line to start all over again.  After you’ve had a couple of rolls, you’re ready to unwrap the gift that keeps on giving: pork.  Each person gets a small silver nugget of cold, fermented pressed pork seasoned with vinegar, chili and garlic. The first time I ate it I wasn’t sure what I thought but after a few visits I now unwrap it as giddily as if Santa put it under my tree.

Bun Ho HueAt Bun Nguyen Du Hue you order the bun bo hue  (pronounced “boon baw hway”).  There is no reason to order anything else.  In fact, when the server hands you the very abbreviated menu, he might just warn you that noodle dishes are their specialty to discourage you from ordering anything non-noodle related.  Bun Nguyen Du Hue is right across the parking lot from Quan Nemh Ninh Hoa, but unlike the lively and well-patronized QNNH, it is a rather forlorn looking place.   It has a patio with plants and is very nicely painted and decorated inside, and they are very friendly. They serve all the dishes in attractive rough-hewn pottery.   The flatscreen (also present at QNNH, alas), is often turned up too loud. Bun bo hue is a slightly spicy beef noodle soup that is heavily flavored with lemongrass.  It is presented accompanied with mint, bean sprouts, jalapenos, chopped cabbage, and a chili sauce that you can use to make the broth hotter if you desire it.  The aromatic broth is the key to this wonderful dish, and it is good enough to make me forget about the pale and limp spaghetti-ish noodles. The first time I went I accidentally ordered a bowl with all the trimmings, including tendon (gan), blood (huyet), pig knuckle, cuts of beef, and a yummy seasoned meat cake that is called cha lua.  The pig knuckle especially was very challenging for me, although I was intrigued to note that a couple nearby had ordered a separate extra dish of them.  I got a little queasy and couldn’t quite finish the bowl.  But a funny thing happened. The next day I found myself thinking about the rubbery texture of the knuckle and how it had been fun to bite down into it.  Next time I ordered the whole shebang (you can also order the bun bo hue with beef only), and I tore into it with zeal.  You might even say I tore it a new one.  I ate the blood cake (pleasantly liver-y) and tendon eagerly.  I don’t say this to illustrate any sort of extreme eating machismo, but just to point out that dishes that start out challenging or repellent can transform into prized ingredients given some time and perseverance. My companion got the pho, which had some tasty meatballs and the interesting inclusion of oxtail on the bone, but the broth was too sweet and not rich enough.  There might be another reason to visit besides the bun bo hue, because they also offer a goat hot pot (for multiple people, it’s 30 bucks) that the server assured me that people order pretty often (I didn’t like the idea of a lone cut of goat moldering away in the refrigerator) and a dish that features “ox-privates”.  I might sample these on a future visit, but I’ll for sure be back during the cold weather for a bright, light, and warming bowl of bun bo hue.

At Co Do you order the co do.  No, just kidding, Co Do is the nickname of Hue, the old capital city in central Vietnam. Co Do means ‘old city’ This restaurant specializes in the food of Hue and central Vietnam.  The minute I walked in my pulse quickened because the air was redolent with charcoal smoke.  These guys are charbroiling masters.  What Da Vinci did for the Sistine Chapel, and what Dan Brown did for Da Vinci, Co Do does for grilled meats.  My rice plate came with luscious lightly blackened and caramelized chopped pork and sweet and juicy shrimp.  Co Do also has the best banh beo (pronounced ban beh-oh) that I’ve had.  Banh beo is one of the most fun appetizers around.  It’s a flat, fresh cooked rice noodle that is served in a small dish and garnished, usually with chopped shallot, deep fried garlic, dried shrimp, and a pour of sweet and light fish sauce.  Each noodle is one bite, and you get multiple small dishes (sometimes as many as twelve), but the ones at Co Do are larger than normal.  You are given a long spoon to run around the edges of the noodle, and then you scoop and eat.  I also sampled the Bun Dac Biet, (“dac biet” is a phrase that means house special, and it’s bun, so you can expect vermicelli, herbs, meat, and fish sauce).  It came with dry chicken, and more enticingly, some seared pork meatballs that were richly fatty and soft.  Co Do is known for its rice plates and I recommend it heartily.  Start with the banh beo.

Although pho is one of the most satisfying meals-in-a-bowl on earth, I urge you to branch out from this dish and the occasional banh mi (one of the most perfect sandwiches ever invented), if you haven’t already.  Take a look at what everyone around you is ordering and take the plunge.  Even if you don’t love it, Vietnamese food is so wonderfully economical that you’ll only be out five or six bucks.  And the best thing is that you know your restaurant will be Graswich-free!

Quan Nemh Ninh Hoa
6450 Stockton Blvd, Sacramento, (916) 428-374

Bun Nguyen Du Hue
6458 Stockton Blvd, Sacramento, (916) 394-9220

Co Do
6665 Stockton Blvd, Sacramento, (916) 427-8305

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