Come for broken rice, stay for broken rice

Com Tam Dat Thanh

Com tam combination No. 4 with BBQ chicken slathered with sweet sauce.

Com tam combination No. 4 with BBQ chicken slathered with sweet sauce.

photo by Christy Rogers

Good for: Trying banh hoi, if it’s new to you
Notable dishes: Com tam combos
Vietnamese, South Sacramento

Com Tam Dat Thanh

5035 Fruitridge Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95820

(916) 758-5775

Common sense dictates that if a restaurant names itself after a particular dish, you sample that dish to see what they’re all about.

I was feeling a brunch pho craving the first time I visited Com Tam Dat Thanh, so I foolishly bypassed all 32 of their variations on com tam (commonly called “broken rice” because it’s made up of fractured rice grains) and went straight for the tiny soup section of the menu to order the pho tai ($8.45, thinly sliced steak). Despite the artful pile of ruby red steak atop the broth, it was the blandest pho I’ve ever tasted. My husband and I were sharing two dishes, and when I surrendered the pho, I watched with astonishment as he salted it, something he said he’d never done before. The bun bo hue ($9.95) broth was pleasant—light and lemony—but not deeply savory and I didn’t finish it.

I roused myself from my brunch stupor and looked around at the other tables, most of which had ordered rice plates. The bright dining room is further illuminated by a chest-high LED strip that runs horizontally around the room and decorated with large photos of various dishes. A new one to me was the banh hoi, or “tiny rice vermicelli.” I quickly texted my go-to friend on all Vietnamese menu matters, and he responded that it is a thin noodle dish (he likened it to angel hair pasta) served with barbecued meats, and one is meant to wrap the noodles and meat in lettuce. I left, unsatisfied with my first visit but full of big plans for my next.

But which com tam dish to order? The list of 32 is front-loaded with the large “special combinations” (all $13.45). Warned away from the No. 1 by the server because “Americans” don’t like the springy meatballs (I decided to acquiesce rather than argue), I instead chose the combo with shredded pork skin, egg cake, shrimp cake, BBQ chicken and shrimp. Beautifully composed and colorful, it was served on a large square plate.

A pop of orange color, the cha trung translates as “egg cake” but is really more of a pork meatloaf brushed with egg yolk and annatto seed oil. The powdery pork skin (made so by roasted rice powder) tasted mostly of scallion, and the shrimp cake (a shrimp paste wrapped in tofu skin and deep fried) was a crunchy delight.

All of the meats—chicken, shrimp and beef—were brushed with the same sweet sauce I normally associate with beef dishes, and the taste became cloying after a few bites. This was true for the beef that came with my banh hoi dish ($9.95), but I enjoyed packing the lettuce wraps with thin vermicelli, cilantro and mint, and dipping them in a self-serve dish of nuoc mam (fish sauce) from a carafe on the table.

One more quibble: The fish sauce was one-note sweet and light. I craved at least a little funk, especially on my last visit, when I got the bun, or vermicelli bowl ($9.95), this time with pork in that same sweet glaze. It made me long for the glory days of the succulent BBQ pork bun at Huong Lan, before it went downhill. The battered-and-deep-fried eggrolls looked craggy and unusual, but didn’t have a ton of flavor besides “fried.”

I came right back to com tam, the dish embedded in the name of the restaurant. My friend’s loose translation of Com Tam Dat Thanh? “Broken rice success.”