Break the rules
Lemon Grass Asian Grill and Noodle Bar945 Howe Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95825
One of the easiest rules of thumb about discovering foods from another culture runs something like this: The authenticity and tastiness of the food is typically in inverse proportion to the beauty, grace and convenience of the restaurant location. In other words, if you want to eat great Thai or Vietnamese or Mexican or whatever food, dishes that remind you of street fare from your ideal vacation, look for a hole-in-the-wall. When restaurants gloss things up to bring in an upscale crowd, that usually means they’re dumbing down the food.
Well, rules are made to be broken, and that one definitely is at Mai Pham’s new Lemon Grass Asian Grill and Noodle Bar. (Her flagship restaurant breaks the rule, too, though it’s serving a more refined cuisine—and the last meal I had there was a bit timid.) Lemon Grass Asian Grill, which bills itself on the menu as “inspired by the colorful world of Southeast Asian street food and market kitchens,” has been added to the big Howe Avenue location of La Bou (a chain Pham also heads), making for an ultra-busy lunchtime frenzy. On my visit, the place was packed with people lining up for both La Bou’s sandwich-salad menu and the decidedly more interesting options available at the space’s other counter. Shiny, new and attractive, it’s a reasonably priced and quick lunch option. The food is great: fresh, sparkling-clear in its flavors and also stylishly presented.
The menu is kept short, which works well for this high-turnover restaurant. At lunch, you can choose from a few curries and noodle dishes, two noodle soups (one of them pho), salads and salad rolls, plus beverages. They have some nice iced teas, such as a fruity, pleasant mango version, out in big ceramic coolers, as well as Thai iced tea and Vietnamese iced coffee. The latter, in a tall plastic cup, was excellent: buzzily strong and just barely sweetened by its modest dose of sweetened condensed milk.
One of the nice things about this casual cafe’s menu is the number of clearly labeled vegetarian options—something that can be hard to find in some Southeast Asian restaurants, thanks to the prevalence of fish sauce as a flavoring. I loved the vegetarian jungle curry, which came with a very creamy, very mild curry sauce; planks of yummy tofu; and a plenitude of unusually interesting, texturally diverse and tasty vegetables: green peas, half-moons of tender zucchini, broccoli, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Often, such curries are full of the same-old-same-old canned bamboo shoots and strips of bell pepper, so it was nice to get a fresh assortment.
The other main dishes, similarly, were set apart by small but nice touches. The pork bun (noodle bowl) was arranged in a pretty ceramic bowl, with different ingredients ranged around the sides for the diner to toss before eating: a mound of vibrant lightly pickled carrots, a shower of chopped peanuts, crisp shards of golden fried shallots and—a nice touch—a tangle of soft caramelized red onions. (Or were they shallots? Anyway, they were delicious.) Strips of marinated pork were in the middle, topping fresh herbs and greens (I could have done with a little more of the latter) as well as rice noodles.
The pork was full-flavored and nicely caramelized by the grill. It was occasionally a bit fatty, but in my book, that’s a good thing; the fat carries the flavor of the sweet-and-savory marinade brilliantly. The salad came pre-dressed with nuoc cham sauce—a bit too much of it for me; I would have preferred to get the nuoc cham on the side so I could pour it over the bun myself, as is done in many restaurants.
I also tried an appetizer of salad rolls with tofu, which get a hit of savory flavor from mushrooms. The rolls were nice and fresh, with the rice-paper crepe tender and soft, and with an herbaceous crunch from the vegetables within. They come with peanut sauce, and you can get a large or small order.
The kao-soi noodle soup had a thick, rich coconutty curry broth, with just a tiny hint of heat, but you could add your own piquancy to taste from the little bowl of chilies and pickled vegetables that came alongside. My daughter made an almost-disastrous grab for the bowl; bits of the crunchy fried noodles that topped the soup were a welcome distraction for her and an appealing textural contrast to the silky-smooth soup for more grown-up palates. Packed with tender egg noodles, crisp bright-green snow peas, cabbage and shreds of chicken, the soup was a meal in a bowl and then some.
The desserts on offer are mainly from the La Bou side of the restaurant. Pre-wrapped cookies were on hand at the counter, but I found my iced coffee filled the role of dessert neatly. In addition to the cookies, there are also boxed, ready-to-grab lunches at the cash register, so you can be in and out of Lemon Grass Asian Grill quickly. The restaurant is so efficient (not to mention pleasant; the servers were cheerful and adept), however, that it’s worth the wait for these quick, delicious, authentic—and, yes, a little bit upscale—renditions of Southeast Asian street food.