Fresh, light, pleasurable
Sacramento, CA 95816
Star Ginger screams franchise. In a good way. Like Wolfgang Puck’s places at airports, an oasis of fresh, flavorful food amid Sahara of prefab foulness. The large sign at the corner of Folsom and Alhambra boulevards, with its snappy, well-executed logo—“Star” in yellow, “Ginger” in orange—is easy to visualize, on a smaller scale, wrapped around a jar of some specialty of the self-described “Asian grill, noodle house.”
Not unlike the lemongrass ginger and Thai green curry that Star Ginger’s owner, Mai Pham, already markets. The restaurant’s sleek, minimalist interior, high ceiling and light wood tones also seem like a model that could be replicated endlessly.
And, indeed, it well might be. Early in March, Mai signed a deal with Sodexo, a hefty conglomerate judging by its website. Sodexo has food operations nationwide at more than 575 retail locations in everything from colleges to hospitals to U.S. Marine Corps garrisons. Now, as reported in The Insect, Sodexo can add Star Gingers willy-nilly at their locations for the next 10 years. In fact, Sacramento’s Star Ginger, the site of a former Togo’s, is already one of four Star Gingers. Smaller versions are operated by UC Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
So what’s this concept that appears destined to sweep the nation?
Well, like the name says, it’s an amalgam of familiar Thai and Vietnamese dishes, ordered at the counter, cooked fresh and brought to the table. No avocado shakes, banh cuon or tripe. Everything is aimed at staying well within the Western comfort level. There’s a reason the simple and more mainstream pho—a little dear at $7.95—is offered and not bun bo hue with its huyet and cha lua, pig’s blood and pork loaf, respectively.
Nor are any of the dishes terrifically spicy. A diner can ask for more heat, though. The pho garnish plate, for instance, is light on jalapeño rounds, heavy on crisp bean sprouts and devoid of mint and cilantro although there’s a little coriander in the broth. But a request for more jalapeño is swiftly fulfilled. And there’s hoisin, chili oil and the sainted sriracha floating around the tables as well.
As she’s demonstrated for years at Lemon Grass, Mai has a gift with vegetarian fare. The Buddha salad roll—stuffed with tofu, carrot, rice noodles, a bit of red leaf lettuce and what tastes like a woodsy stick of shitake—almost doesn’t need a dunking in the peanut sauce to delight. A nifty touch is having the fairly traditional Asian noodle salad rest on a bed of crunchy sprouts and mixed greens.
Consider the yellow “jungle” curry with its garbanzos and yams, or the more Indian dal-like cauliflower, eggplant and lentils.
For carnivores, the sweet Thai barbecue chicken—at $9.25 two bits from being the priciest item on the menu—is plenty of meal: three palm-sized pieces, some yellow curry dipping sauce, a hillock of jasmine or brown rice and a generous dollop of a lively ginger-sesame salad.
There are five types of banh mi: lemongrass chicken, Thai barbecue chicken and pork among them. It’s sandwiches like these that were a staple of Mai’s youth in Saigon. Not sure street stalls were offering Niman Ranch Korean barbecue beef, however. Unless a fan of chewy pinkness, it’s worth asking for medium to well-done on the beef.
Banh mi, in brief: inside a baguette, some meat—Mai has a veggie version featuring shitake—accompanied by cucumber and cilantro. What makes the amalgam thrum is jalapeños and slivers of carrot and daikon, piquantly pickled. There’s a surprisingly tame sriracha aioli involved. But, again, more heat can be easily obtained.
While not as exotic as a voyage down Stockton Boulevard to its panoply of Vietnamese eateries featuring distinctive dishes from the north, south and center, Star Ginger offers fresh, light, pleasurable, relatively fast food that offers no threat to those of a more cautious palate. Like a station one might find in a health-conscious university cafeteria.