Flavors in harmony
Viet-ha Vietnamese & Chinese6534 Florin Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95828
In the first review I ever wrote for this publication, I recall musing on the roles of Thai and Vietnamese food in my marriage. At the time, my husband favored Thai while I was a firm partisan of Vietnamese, which led to occasional disagreements over takeout. But recently, as we finished up an excellent dinner at Viet Ha on Florin Road, he reached over for a bite from the enormous noodle bowl I’d ordered and said, “You know, I think Vietnamese has become my favorite kind of food for eating out.” Who says you can’t change a man?
To be honest, I don’t think my powers of persuasion had much to do with the shift, beyond the fact that I simply took him to more and more Vietnamese restaurants. In my opinion, Vietnamese food—fresh, aromatic, and full of contrasting textures and clean flavors—pretty much speaks for itself. The slightly out-of-the-way Viet Ha, which a helpful reader alerted me to, serves dishes that combine all of these many virtues. It’s a perfect spot for summer. Although I didn’t try the more warming dishes, such as pho and other soups or hearty clay-pot braises, I’ll bet Viet Ha offers plenty of solace in winter as well.
The restaurant lies south of my usual stamping grounds, just east of Stockton Boulevard on Florin Road. I usually associate Florin Road with car dealerships, and indeed we passed plenty of them on the way to the unassuming little freestanding building that Viet Ha occupies. On walking in, patrons immediately face a counter (used for takeout, bill paying and the like) and are waved to one of the two dining rooms. Décor is unsurprisingly bare-bones, though I liked the gold-glitter-covered lettering, in a bubbly font that looked just a little ’70s, that spells out the restaurant’s name on one wall. The enormous array of condiments on each table, however—fish sauce, sriracha chili sauce, soy sauce, you name it—is a very good sign indeed.
There’s a long menu, but it’s easier to parse than it looks. That’s because, as at many Vietnamese restaurants, much of it is taken up with variations on a theme. The buns (thin rice-noodle salads) come with grilled pork, pork and spring rolls, shrimp and pork, shrimp and spring rolls, lemon chicken, lemon chicken and spring rolls, and several other combinations—you get the idea. Many of the various stir-fries and clay pots meant for family-style service are also available as individual rice plates. Faced with so many choices, we decided to focus on these two areas of the menu: I was immediately drawn to a noodle bowl, my husband to bo luc lac—cubes of stir-fried beef over a salad-like mixture of lettuce and tomatoes.
We also were unable to resist an appetizer of tender, fresh salad rolls. The rice-paper wrappers encircled herbs and greens, shrimp, and rice noodles, served with sweet peanut sauce for dipping. The menu had promised slices of pork in the rolls as well, though we didn’t really miss them.
My noodle bowl was among the best examples of the breed I’ve ever had. I got it with cha gio (spring rolls) and the sweetly savory grilled pork, an enormous helping of which topped a tangle of perfectly tender noodles, shredded carrots, herbs, cucumbers, lettuce and bean sprouts. There was also a sprinkling of peanuts, as well as two flavor enhancements you don’t always see: crisp, golden fried shallots and a spoonful of hot chili paste, which permeated the whole salad with a little extra zing when I added the accompanying fish-sauce dressing. The freshly fried, hot spring rolls—a delicious contrast with the cool salad—were just great, made with the distinctively crunchy-chewy rice wrappers that I prefer to the thin wheat wrappers used at some restaurants. Their filling was dusky-flavored, with pepper, pork and shredded carrots.
My husband’s beef dish came with a little bowl of lime juice, salt and pepper to pour over it, adding a balance of sourness, saltiness and mild heat that complemented the tender beef’s sweet marinade. This ability to add condiments and season dishes to taste is one of the great things about Vietnamese cooking. The cook adds layers of flavor, but so does the diner, resulting in a balance of simplicity and complexity.
Aside from that, there’s also the fact that I’ve never found a Vietnamese restaurant that didn’t offer freshly made lemonade (actually, it’s usually limeade, which is even better). Viet Ha is no exception. They also have plenty of more esoteric drinks. We saw a vibrantly red, white and green “tri-color dessert” drink at one table, but my husband contented himself with sweet, brick-orange Thai tea with tapioca pearls—perhaps a gesture back to his former loyalty to Thai restaurants.
We’ve found that places like Viet Ha, where the pure flavors and textures of Vietnamese food are presented simply and deliciously, are well worth seeking out, even if they’re a little bit off the beaten path. Not only is the food great, but also we can come a little closer to rapprochement on our culinary disagreements.